A cell phone app that combines white noise, active game-based therapy, and counseling could help “rewire” the brain to provide relief from tinnitus symptoms, new research suggests.

In a randomized controlled trial, results at 12 weeks showed patients with tinnitus reported clinically meaningful reductions in ratings of annoyance, inability to ignore, unpleasantness, and loudness after using a digital polytherapeutic app prototype that focuses on relief, relaxation, and attention-focused retraining.

In addition, their improvements were significantly greater than for the control group, which received a common white noise app.

Researchers called the results “promising” for a condition that has no cure and few successful treatments.

“What this therapy does is essentially rewire the brain in a way that de-emphasizes the sound of the tinnitus to a background noise that has no meaning or relevance to the listener,” lead author Grant Searchfield, PhD, associate professor of audiology at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, said in a press release.

The findings were published online August 5 in Frontiers in Neurology.

Worldwide Problem

As reported by Medscape Medical News, a recent study showed more than 740 million adults worldwide (nearly 15% of the population) have experienced at least one symptom of tinnitus — and about 120 million are severely affected.

Tinnitus is the perception of a ringing, buzzing, whistling, or hissing noise in one or both ears when no external source of the sound is present. Often caused by damage to the auditory system, tinnitus can also be a symptom of a wide range of medical conditions and has been identified as a side effect of COVID-19 vaccination.

In its most severe form, which is associated with hearing loss, tinnitus can also affect a patient’s mental, emotional, and social health.

For the current study, participants with tinnitus were randomly assigned to a popular app that uses white noise (control group, n = 30) or to the UpSilent app (n = 31).

The UpSilent group received a smartphone app, Bluetooth bone conduction headphones, a Bluetooth neck pillow speaker for sleep, and written counseling materials.

Participants in the control group received a widely available app called “White Noise” and in-ear wired headphones.

“Quicker and More Effective”

Both groups reported reductions in ratings of annoyance, ability to ignore, unpleasantness, and loudness at 12 weeks. But significantly more of the UpSilent group reported clinically meaningful improvement compared with the control group (65% vs 43%, respectively; P = .049).

“Earlier trials have found white noise, goal-based counseling, goal-oriented games, and other technology-based therapies are effective for some people some of the time,” Searchfield said.

“This is quicker and more effective, taking 12 weeks rather than 12 months for more individuals to gain some control,” he added.

The investigators note the study was not designed to determine which of the app’s functions of passive listening, active listening, or counseling contributed to symptom improvement.

The next step will be to refine the prototype and proceed to larger local and international trials with a view toward approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, they report.

The researchers hope the app will be clinically available in about 6 months.

The study was funded by Return on Science, Auckland UniServices. Searchfield is a founder and scientific officer for TrueSilence, a spinout company of the University of Auckland, and has a financial interest in TrueSilence. His co-author has reported no relevant financial relationships.

Front Neuro. Published online August 5, 2022. Full text

Kelli Whitlock Burton is a reporter for Medscape Medical News who covers psychiatry and neurology.

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