An international research team has shown that the debilitating impact of tinnitus can be effectively reduced in just weeks by a training course and sound therapy delivered via a smartphone app.
The team from Australian, New Zealand, French, and Belgian universities report these findings in Frontiers in Audiology and Otology.
The solution offers some hope for millions affected by tinnitus who have run out of alternate options or can’t afford the costs of specialist support, the researchers say. The initial trial worked with 30 sufferers, of whom almost two-thirds experienced a “clinically significant improvement.” The team is now planning larger trials in the United Kingdom in collaboration with the University College London Hospital.
The app, MindEar, is available for individuals to trial for themselves on a smartphone.
“About 1.5 million people in Australia, 4 million in the UK and 20 million in the USA have severe tinnitus,” says Fabrice Bardy, PhD, an audiologist at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland and lead author of the paper.
Tinnitus is common, affecting up to one in four people. Older adults mostly experience it but can appear in children. For some, it goes away without intervention. For others, it can be debilitatingly life-changing: affecting hearing, mood, concentration, sleep, and in severe cases, causing anxiety or depression.
“One of the most common misconceptions about tinnitus is that there is nothing you can do about it; that you just have to live with it. This is simply not true. Professional help from those with expertise in tinnitus support can reduce the fear and anxiety attached to the sound patient’s experience,” Bardy says.
Bardy is also co-founder of MindEar, a company set up to commercialize the MindEar technology.
“Cognitive behavioral therapy is known to help people with tinnitus, but it requires a trained psychologist. That’s expensive, and often difficult to access,” says Professor Suzanne Purdy, professor of psychology at Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland. “MindEar uses a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness and relaxation exercises as well as sound therapy to help you train your brain’s reaction so that we can tune out tinnitus. The sound you perceive fades in the background and is much less bothersome.”
According to Bardy, the aforementioned trial observed that two-thirds of users of the chatbot saw improvement after 16 weeks. “This was shortened to only eight weeks when patients additionally had access to an online psychologist,” Bardy added.
Further Reading: Two Flavors of Tinnitus
How MindEar Works
Tinnitus occurs when a person hears a sound in their head or ears when there is no external sound source or risk presented in the environment, and yet the mind responds with a similar alert response.
The sound is perceived as an unpleasant, irritating, or intrusive noise that can’t be switched off. The brain focuses on it insistently, further training our mind to pay even more attention even though there is no risk. This offers a pathway for patients; by training and actively giving the tinnitus less attention, the easier it becomes to tune out.
MindEar aims to help people practice focus through a training program, equipping the mind and body to suppress stress hormones and responses, thus reducing the brain’s focus on tinnitus.
Tinnitus is not a disease in itself but is usually a symptom of another underlying health condition, such as damage to the auditory system or tension occurring in the head and neck.
Although there is no known cure for tinnitus, there are management strategies and techniques that help many sufferers find relief. With the evidence of this trial, the MindEar team is optimistic that there is a more accessible, rapidly available, and effective tool available for the many of those affected by tinnitus still awaiting support.
MindEar is based on the research work of an international multi-disciplinary team composed of audiologists, psychologists, and ENTs, led by Bardy based at the University of Auckland.
Featured image: The MindEar app includes training and education on tinnitus, helping patients better manage symptoms. Photo: MindEar