Tinnitus breakthrough as sound app could train the brain to tune out noises in your head

Last week I answered a reader’s letter about a new treatment for tinnitus, but I feel I should ­expand on it. It can be quite a common and frustrating complaint as we get older.

When I used to ask my dad how he was, he’d answer: “Fine, except for these noises in my head.”

And now I have them too.

Tinnitus affects up to one in four people, mostly older adults. It can be life-changing, affecting hearing, mood, concentration, sleep and in severe cases causes anxiety and depression.

The noise is irritating and intrusive and can’t be switched off. The brain focuses on it insistently, forcing us to pay attention to it.

There was precious little effective treatment for my dad but there’s a new app that gives hope to today’s sufferers.

An international team from Australia, New Zealand, France and Belgium has shown the debilitating impact of tinnitus can be improved in just weeks via a smartphone app.

The app is called MindEar and people can trial it for themselves on their smartphone.

“About 1.5 million people in Australia, four million in the UK and 20 million in the US have severe tinnitus,” says Dr Fabrice Bardy, of Auckland University, lead author of the research paper.

Up until now, people have been told nothing can be done. They have faced long waits for treatment and to see a specialist. The trial was small, 30 sufferers, but almost two-thirds of them experienced a “clinically ­significant improvement”.

“MindEar uses a combination of cognitive behavioural 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,” says Professor Suzanne Purdy, psychologist at Auckland University.

“In our trial, two-thirds of users of our chatbot saw improvement after 16 weeks. This was shortened to only eight weeks when patients additionally had access to an online psychologist,” says Dr Bardy.

How does it work? Even before we’re born, our brains learn to filter out irrelevant sounds, such as the sound of blood rushing through our ears. Later on, our brains learn to filter out environmental noises like traffic and a snoring partner.

Most alarms bypass this filter and trigger the fight-or-flight response. Tinnitus occurs when a person hears a sound in the head or ears where there’s no risk, yet the mind responds with fight-or-flight and anxiety.

MindEar equips the mind and body to suppress the brain’s focus on tinnitus and relive stress.

It’s an accessible, effective tool for people with tinnitus.