January 19, 2017
US News & World Report
Steven Reinberg

An online program that “trains” the brain may help people cope with the constant ringing in the ears called tinnitus, a small study suggests.

People with tinnitus can have poorer working memory, deficiencies in attention, and slower mental processing speeds and reaction times. However, an internet-based program to improve mental acuity appeared to help them deal with the bothersome ear noise, researchers said.

“Fifty percent of the patients in the study reported improvements in memory, attention and ability to deal with tinnitus,” said study co-author Dr. Jay Piccirillo. He’s a professor of otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

Tinnitus is the perception of sound when no actual external noise is present, according to the American Tinnitus Association.

While it’s referred to as “ringing in the ears,” tinnitus can cause many different perceptions of sound, including buzzing, hissing, whistling, swooshing and clicking. In some cases, tinnitus patients report hearing music.

Tinnitus can be temporary or ongoing. Millions of Americans experience tinnitus, often to a debilitating degree, making it one of the most common health conditions in the country, according to the association.

For the study, Piccirillo and his colleagues randomly assigned 40 adults who had bothersome tinnitus for more than six months to the online Brain Fitness Program-Tinnitus program, or a non-tinnitus program.

The Brain Fitness Program-Tinnitus is a mental training program designed to use the brain’s ability to improve thinking and memory skills, the researchers said.

In addition, 20 healthy patients took part in the study for comparison purposes.

Those using the online program spent an hour a day on it, five days a week for eight weeks.

The program is made up of 11 interactive training exercises, including simple sound stimuli, continuous speech and visual stimuli. The goal is to get people to stop paying attention to their tinnitus and let it fade into the background.

The researchers assessed the benefit of the program using brain scans and tests of memory and attention. These were done at the start of the study, and again eight weeks later.

Brain scans of those who underwent the treatment showed changes in the areas responsible for attention and mental control, Piccirillo said.

On specific tests of memory, attention and behavioral measures, the researchers didn’t note any differences. But study participants felt there were improvements.

Half of those who completed the online program said they felt there were improvements in their tinnitus as well as improvements in memory, attention and concentration, compared with patients who didn’t use the program, Piccirillo said.

The program exercises the brain, he said.

“We think it works by the ability of the brain to change itself based on input,” Piccirillo said. “It doesn’t take the tinnitus away. We believe it strengthens the parts of the brain that are used in attention. It trains the ability to stop paying attention to tinnitus.”

More studies need to be done to replicate these findings, he said. In addition, the program needs to be refined to make it more effective, he added.

Piccirillo said the program they use from Posit Science is currently available online, as are other brain-strengthening programs. He said he encourages people to use them to keep their brains sharp.

Dr. Harrison Lin, an assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, reviewed the study’s findings.

“This is an important study that once again demonstrates the considerable benefits of these safe and noninvasive measures that can be provided to potentially improve the lives of people suffering from chronic and bothersome tinnitus,” Lin said.

This study captures the functional and positive impact of the cognitive training program on patients’ perception of tinnitus and also on the biological activity within specific parts of their brains, he said.

“Health care providers should present these psychological interventions as a form of first-line treatment for their patients with debilitating tinnitus,” Lin said.

The report was published online Jan. 19 in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.