Tinnitus or just the patter of rain? Research into taming noise disorder

A novel experiment investigated whether tinnitus could be tamed by creating associations with noises such as rain, birds or cicadas.

The results are promising, according to Assoc Prof Grant Searchfield, an associate professor in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland and Principal Investigator at Brain Research New Zealand.

In the study, 18 people with tinnitus listened for an hour a day over three months to recordings of a sound matched to their tinnitus, what Dr Searchfield describes as a “tinnitus avatar” that morphed into a real-world noises such as cicadas or birds chirping, a fan, water, rain or some combination of those sounds.

Tinnitus is a condition where people hear a noise, such as a ringing or a buzzing, that isn’t really there. The condition can disrupt sleep and concentration, trigger anxiety and depression, and, in the worst cases, even lead to suicide.

Would that noise be less annoying for a brain trained to associate it with a natural sound? A third of the participants in the study reported that their tinnitus because less noticeable or reduced in volume. Altogether, 11 of 18 noticed a change.

The results, which also included indications of changes in brain activity, suggest this method should be further explored because of its potential as a tinnitus treatment, according to Dr Searchfield.

“We’re beginning to harness artificial intelligence to link brain activity to improvements in tinnitus, meaning we can predict who will benefit from treatment and who won’t."

The research, just published in the journal Brain Sciences, was carried out by the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences in collaboration with the Auckland University of Technology as part of an going programme of research towards personalised treatment for tinnitus.

In New Zealand, tinnitus affects about 14 percent of people aged over 65, and there is no medical cure.

This article was originally published by the University of Auckland.

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