by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
Researchers are busy looking for ways to reduce tinnitus. A recent study (1) that caught my eye, and one that shows promise, consists of listening to your favorite music for about 2 hours a day for a year. How hard can that be when one of the benefits is reducing the volume of your tinnitus?
In order for this to work, there are two conditions you must meet. First, your tinnitus must be a tonal kind of tinnitus that stays at a constant frequency. Second, the music you listen to must be digitally modified to take out the frequency of your tinnitus—hence the term “notched music”—as you have a notch where there is no sound at your tinnitus frequency.
(The way the researchers created this “notch” was to filter out a whole octave of sound centered around the frequency of the person’s tinnitus.)
Then, you just listen to your music for about 2 hours a day for the next year. By the end of 6 months, you’ll notice that the volume of your tinnitus is dropping significantly.
After 12 months, the people in this study found their tinnitus had dropped in volume by about 28%, and their annoyance at their tinnitus had dropped around 22%. In contrast, those in the placebo group (who listened to their favorite music without the notch) actually had their tinnitus increase about 9% and their annoyance at their tinnitus increase about 7%. (There was no indication as to what kind of music people listened to, nor at what volume.)
The reason this notched music therapy appears to work is that our brains are “plastic”. That means they can adapt and change their responses over time. Apparently our brains are more amenable to changing based on listening to sounds we like rather than to ones we dislike—hence the need to choose music you particularly like.
Researchers are beginning to understand that tinnitus arises when the auditory cortex in our brains inadvertently changes in inappropriate ways.
Researchers feel that tinnitus is “associated with a relative excitatory-inhibitory cortical neural network dysbalance, at the expense of the inhibitory system.” Say what? In plain English, what this means is that when everything is functioning properly, some auditory neurons in our brains may get too excited and “talk” out of turn so to speak. When they do this, the surrounding neurons tell them to “shut up”. This maintains order in the auditory cortex.
However, when too many begin to talk out of turn and not enough tell them to “shut up”, things get a bit wild and the result is tinnitus. If this situation is allowed to continue, it becomes the new norm and you end up with constant tinnitus.
Furthermore, if you have a hearing loss, some neurons in your auditory cortex are deprived of normal sound signals. Since neurons are not happy doing nothing, they “rewire” themselves so that they are no longer excited by the frequencies they were originally tuned to. Instead, they tune in to the frequency of their neighboring neurons. When a bunch of them do this, the resulting synchronized spontaneous neural activity apparently results in what we call tinnitus.
The good news is that previous research has shown that this “rowdy” behavior can be modified by behavioral training. The way the researchers did this in this study was to eliminate sounds at the frequency of the person’s tinnitus. Now, since there was no “sound stimulus” at the frequency of the “tinnitus neurons”, but at all other frequencies, the “neurons that weren’t stimulated were suppressed via lateral inhibitory inputs originating from surrounding neurons.” In other words, enough of the surrounding neurons told the “tinnitus neurons” to “shut up” and thus the volume of their tinnitus went down, and things became more normal once again.
It appears that notched-music therapy may prove to be an enjoyable, low-cost and casual (relaxed) treatment for reducing tinnitus a significant amount.
If you want to learn more about tinnitus and some of the things you can do to help bring it under control, see the book, “When Your Ears Ring—Cope with Your Tinnitus—Here’s How“.
(1) “Customized notch music training reduces tinnitus loudness” by Henning Stracke, et. al. Communicative & Integrative Biology 3:3 pp. 1-4, May/June 2010.