An online programme 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 programme to improve mental acuity appeared to help them deal with the bothersome ear noise, researchers said.
Read: A visual guide to tinnitus
"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.
What causes ringing in the ears?
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 programme, or a non-tinnitus programme.
The Brain Fitness Program-Tinnitus is a mental training programme designed to use the brain's ability to improve thinking and memory skills, the researchers said.
Interactive training exercises
In addition, 20 healthy patients took part in the study for comparison purposes.
Those using the online programme spent an hour a day on it, five days a week for eight weeks.
Read: Do you have ringing in your ears?
The programme 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 programme 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 behavioural measures, the researchers didn't note any differences. But study participants felt there were improvements.
Strengthens parts of the brain
Half of those who completed the online programme 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 programme, Piccirillo said.
The programme 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."
Read: Focusing on tinnitus
More studies need to be done to replicate these findings, he said. In addition, the programme needs to be refined to make it more effective, he added.
Piccirillo said the programme they use from Posit Science is currently available online, as are other brain-strengthening programmes. 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 Centre, reviewed the study's findings.
"This is an important study that once again demonstrates the considerable benefits of these safe and non-invasive 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 programme 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 in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.
Is it bad to sleep with earplugs all the time?
Tinnitus: why the ringing in your ears may be hard to treat
How magnesium may help prevent tinnitus