A potential new treatment for tinnitus has been developed that can reduce symptoms of the disorder. The new treatment also has potential to eliminate symptoms.
Researchers at the Department of Biomedical, Industrial and Human Factors Engineering at Ohio’s Wright State University used neurofeedback training to help patients reduce their focus on the symptoms of tinnitus.
Tinnitus is often described as ringing in the ears, although other sounds that come from within the body are also heard. The symptoms can be mild and annoying, or severe and can have a major detrimental impact on quality of life. While there are several different treatments for tinnitus, some patients do not respond to any of the treatments.
Wright State University research engineer, Dr. Matthew S Sherwood, said “in people with tinnitus there is an over-attention drawn to the auditory cortex, making it more active than in a healthy person.” However, if patients can be trained to divert their attention away from the condition, the symptoms can go away, and even be eradicated.
The study was conducted on 18 healthy individuals with normal hearing and no symptoms of tinnitus. Symptoms of the disorder were replicated using earplugs that could be used to introduce ‘white noise’. The subjects were subjected to periods of white noise, followed by periods of no sound. During the tests, the research subjects underwent five functional MRI scans, with the team using single-shot echo-planar imaging to measure brain activity.
During the tests, the researchers were able to map brain activity during the periods when white noise was introduced and identify areas of the brain that were heavily activated. The research participants then underwent neurofeedback training while inside the scanner. Each participant was shown a bar that displayed auditory activity on a screen when the white noise was played. They were given techniques that they could use to help them control the activity and reduce it and monitor their progress.
The techniques involved diverting attention using sight, touch, and other focusing techniques, with one of the best techniques to focus on breathing. These techniques helped the participants to control brain activity and reduce their focus on sounds. A control group was given fake neurofeedback training, allowing the researchers to determine the effect of neurofeedback training on control of the primary auditory cortex.
Dr. Sherwood reports that “By diverting their attention away from sound, the participants’ auditory cortex activity went down, and the signal we were measuring also went down.” The control group showed no reduction in auditory cortex activity.
While this technique used fMRI, the researchers hope to create a program that can be used without fMRI and can be performed at home by patients, such as using a smartphone-based app. This technique also has potential to be used to control the symptoms of other conditions in addition to tinnitus, according to Dr. Sherwood.