Music Therapy for Tinnitus

Can music stop that ringing in your ears?

In Brain Sense, I tell the story of Tim, the eccentric electronics genius who is plagued with tinnitus. Like most of the 50 million Americans who complain of an annoying ringing in the ears, Tim suffers and bears. He's learned to live with tinnitus, but some 1-2 million of his fellow sufferers have tinnitus so severe that it interferes with their daily lives. Tinnitus is more than an annoyance. It can induce depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other symptoms that run the gamut from unpleasant to downright life-threatening.

People with tinnitus sense a sound in the ears or head that comes from no external source. The sound varies among individuals, often described as ringing, buzzing, chirping (like crickets), whistling, or humming. Most of the sounds are high-pitched and loud. The sounds of tinnitus may be heard in one ear only, both ears equally, or one ear more than the other.

Although tinnitus if often associated with hearing loss, it need not be a problem in the ears. Instead--in many cases, anyway--the problem lies in the brain--specifically in the region called the auditory cortex. Recently, researchers at Henry Ford Hospital used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to compare brain activity in 17 patients with tinnitus and 10 patients without tinnitus.

The imaging showed that tinnitus patients with ringing in one ear experienced  increased brain activity in the auditory cortex on the opposite site of the brain (that is, left-ear tinnitus is associated with increased activity in the right auditory cortex and vice versa). Patients who experienced ringing in both ears showed heightened activity in the auditory cortices on both sides of the brain.

Various treatments have been tried for tinnitus (I report on quite a few in Brain Sense), and some produce better results than others do. But to date, no one has come up with a definitive "cure," and some of the treatments are so time-consuming and burdensome that many tinnitus sufferers reject them. Now German researchers have reported a kind of music therapy that could develop into a simple, cheap, and pleasant form of tinnitus treatment.

Christo Pantev and his team at the University of Muenster took each patient's favorite music and removed from it the audio frequencies that matched the individual's tinnitus. In other words, this so-called "notched" music contained no energy in the frequency range surrounding the individual's tinnitus frequency.

After one year of listening to their favorite notched tunes, test subjects reported a significant decrease in the loudness of their ear ringing, compared to a matched group of tinnitus patients who listed to placebo (unaltered) music. What's more, brain scans revealed reduced activity in the auditory cortex corresponding to the tinnitus frequency.

I've listened to samples of the altered and unaltered music, and to tell you the truth, I can't tell much difference. But then I don't have tinnitus. But if you do, you may be hoping that you can push a button right this minute to download a tinnitus-curing MP3. I'm afraid you'll have to wait a while. The sample size for this research study was small, and the music had to be custom-made to each individual's needs. If the research continues and the therapy delivers on its promise, you'll probably be buying prescription music, not an over-the-counter cure-all.

Still, there may come a time when tinnitus sufferers like Tim (and you?) won't need to fight that annoying ringing in the ears. Relief may be just a song or two away.

Learn More:

"My Ears Are Ringing," Chapter 23 in Brain Sense.

For more on the Henry Ford MEG Study, see "The New Buzz on Detecting Tinnitus."

For more on the German music therapy, see
Hidehiko Okamoto, Henning Stracke, Wolfgang Stoll, and Christo Pantev.
Listening to tailor-made notched music reduces tinnitus loudness and tinnitus-related auditory cortex activity. PNAS published online before print December 28, 2009.

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