Specially Modified Music Can Rewire Brain & Alleviate Tinnitus

By Brett Israel | December 29, 2009 2:36 pm

ear-ipod-webTinnitus, the perceived ringing and buzzing in one’s ears, may not be fully understood, but what is known is that it can severely disrupt a person’s life. Treatment for the condition has been unreliable, but now scientists are reporting a new way to turn down the ringing by turning up music, according to a new study.

Scientists altered participants’ favourite music to remove notes which matched the frequency of the ringing in their ears. After a year of listening to the modified music, individuals reported a drop in the loudness of their tinnitus [BBC News]. Participants who listened to music in which notes of a different frequency were removed reported no such improvement. The treatment could be a cheap way to help the three percent of the population that suffers from tinnitus, say the researchers, who published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The idea is to remove the spectrum of noise linked to tinnitus from the music a person listens to so that the area of the brain associated with that frequency will not be as active. The researchers propose that the therapy might work by re-wiring parts of the auditory cortex that have become over-active to instead tune into surrounding—but different—tones. Another possibility is that with deprivation, these specially tuned auditory neurons would undergo “long-term depression,” causing them to become less active overall [Scientific American]. How ironic that one of the causes of ringing ears may also be the solution.

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Image: flickr / Neil T

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
MORE ABOUT: hearing, music, PNAS, senses
  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    @NoahMG points out that the researchers haven’t proven that the special music is necessarily rewiring the brain. http://twitter.com/noahWG/statuses/7170735649

    The positive experimental result does suggest that’s the mechanism.

  • http://www.cs.unc.edu/~gb Gary

    I am essentially deaf above 8 kHz and the terrible ringing I hear is above 8 kHz. Not hearing these frequencies is, I think, the source of my ringing not its cure.

  • gines

    I think that’s not very plausible for two reasons: Maybe Im wrong but i feel first – that no human instruments or loudspeakers can play or detect so high frecuencies as tinnitus, and second the pitch of the tinnitus varies a lot of times into one hour, so the machine should know this changes so it can respond correspondingly, therefore it should be connected to the real tinnitus sound, but in my opinion technic is not so advanced.

  • AuD Audiologist

    Beyond that, supose your Tinnitus was a 13K Hz, now how many head phones, speakers etc have the effective ability to play 13k Hz? Also, if I remember correctly, music is recorded up to 10K Hz, so technically the music you hear now is already “clipped” off at 10K Hz and above. Honestly I would have to see a lot of research on this approach before I would even begin to believe it.


  • rrtzmd

    …”hi-fi” recording is considered 20-20,000 Hz and a good pair of headphones should reproduce that range without difficulty…excessively loud sound kills hair cells, and as these are are lost, different neurons are activated, in turn activating auditory parts of the brain and giving the constant perception of sound…the idea is then to remove those frequencies around the overactive area and distract the brain so it “ignores” the tinnitus frequencies — in effect, the brain is trained not to listen to the tinnitus…that’s not a terribly good explanation but the best I can do without getting overly technical…

  • StewPot

    I cannot comment scientifically. I first experience Tinnitus after hammering nails in my basement ceiling with my ear too close to the hammer-strike. Sometimes the condition seems very loud, other times imperceptible. I learned in my youth to ignore unpleasant stimuli with self-taught methods that might be called “meditation”. Cold, pain, and even tiredness have been subdued, somewhat. Tinnitus is no exception and is now usually such a minimal obtrusion as to be non-existent. As a musician, I have tried concentrating on the sound, looking for variations, trying to control the pitch and loudness ( as I write this and am thinking of the topic it is the loudest thing I hear). I believe that I simply have learned to relegate it to the background to the point of it’s temporary exorcism, by accepting it and taking it in as part of my surroundings. Like all stumuli, it is all about focus and attenuation. I can understand how the playing of engineered music might train for that, albeit subconsciously.

  • rrtzmd

    …for “stewpot”…the transient “ringing” you experience after driving nails is not tinnitus…it is, however, a warning of what you may expect if you continue to expose yourself to loud sounds…tinnitus is a PERSISTENT ringing…imagine if what you hear after hammering were to continue PERMANENTLY…at the SAME pitch and at the SAME volume…EVERY waking hour of the REST of your life…”meditation” or relegating the sound to the “background” will NOT protect you…hearing loss occurs because loud sounds are really just large pressure waves which bend the stereocilia of the hair cells too far and damage them…once they are damaged, they DON’T HEAL…the ONLY thing that can protect them is LOWERING the decibel level……and what the authors are describing is NOT protective…they are aiming to train the brain to ignore the consequences of damage that has ALREADY occurred…in your case, I would strongly recommend a good set of earplugs…

  • audiophile

    all modern recordings contain a spectrum of (at least) 20Hz to 20,000Hz. (audiologist? really?)
    almost any set of headphones or loudspeakers (even cheap ones… Bose lifestyle systems cut off before 20k, they’re just about the only exception) will play from 100Hz to 20,000Hz, +/- 3dB.
    tinnitus is a constant sound, at a constant pitch (frequency).
    just the facts…

  • Budhi

    It is not low sounds (excluding high pressure waves from explossions) that depress the ear hairs (stereocilia). It is high frequencies of particular Hz.
    Feedback from a PA or guitar amp for instance is very good at this sort of damage, and notice the ringing (in ones ears) is very close if not exactly that frequency!!!

  • bob

    Amazing info thank you

  • http://tinnitusfreedom.info Warren

    I never thought that I had tinnitus at a young age. Always thought that the hissing sound in my ears was a natural noise. Searching on the internet, I found what the noises in my brain where…TINNITUS!

    Now that I am a little older, I wish I would of taken better care of my hearing, since I am in construction and am a frequent goer to shows.

    Learned to ignore it over the years. I guess you could say I have accepted it as being natural.

  • Kim

    I don’t remember not having tinnitus. When I realized that other people did not hear the sounds that I did, I told myself that I had superhuman hearing. I imagined that the noises were the extra sounds that things made that only I could hear – kind of like dogs hearing at different frequencies than humans. This explained why sometimes the sounds got louder. As I got older, I thought that the sounds were proof of my insanity (as was the idea that I had superhuman hearing).

    I remember when I first heard of this as a “disease”. I read it in one of the 3 Ann Landers articles that I have read in my life. My grip on sanity got a lot firmer at that moment. I can’t even tell you how many times I got out of the bath room to answer the phone. Eventually, I stopped. I kept that letter to Ann Landers for years. I would periodically re-read it to make sure it said what I remembered it said, then I kept it as a piece of irony that I would find my sanity in Ann Landers. It still took me 2 years and 2 visits to sobbingly tell a doctor. His surprise that this was sooooooo overwhelming for me to talk about actually gave me re-assurance of some sort. Finding out there wasn’t a cure was drowned out by the knowledge that he knew what I was talking about and I wasn’t actually ‘sick’ in the head, I was sick in the ears. (By the way when I read the article about how the brain/mind is involved, I had a second when I connected ‘the sounds with memories, interpreting their meaning, giving them emotional significance,’ i.e. fear. But my higher region of the brain sent its own feedback that said “Look at all this research! Wow, maybe one day there will be a cure. In the meantime, nothing has changed in here”)

    I can’t even imagine how I would tell you what frequency the sound is, especially as it changes. My best description is that it sounds like crickets inside my head, but it doesn’t. (This is probably one of the reasons that I hate that noise. It seems to increase the volume of what I hear in my head by a factor of 3 or 4.)

    This is what I know: 1) Sometimes it is louder than others. 2) Sometimes it is sooooooo loud
    I want to scream, but take a breath and focus on other things. 3) Most of the time, I can completely ignore it, but it is never ‘gone’. 4) Certain sounds mask the sound, e.g. running water helps, but then I sometimes hear the tinkling of bells . . . 5) I am hyper-sensitive to certain other noises and prefer very quiet surroundings even though they are never really quiet. 6) Some noises bring me an absurd joy, e.g. the sound of the applause of leaves of cotton wood trees as the wind gently celebrates the day. 7) I cannot even imagine not having this. 8) Probably more than 3% of the population have this. We don’t test kids. 9) With all the noise pollution and iPod usage, tinnitus is going to become the rule, not the exception.

    Anyway, I am glad to hear that such focus is being applied to making the world quiet for those who suffer with this.

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