New app can reduce debilitating impact of tinnitus, say researchers

Whether it is a ringing sound or perpetual buzzing, tinnitus is a common and often debilitating condition. Now researchers say they have designed an app that can reduce its impact.

Tinnitus is the perception of sounds that are not the result of an external source, and is thought to affect 7.6 million people in the UK, although fewer have severe tinnitus.

While there is no cure, there are a number of ways of managing the condition, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This helps people to reduce their emotional connection to the sound, allowing the brain to learn to tune it out. However, CBT can be expensive and difficult for people to access.

Researchers have created an app, called MindEar, that provides CBT through a chatbot with other approaches such as sound therapy.

“What we want to do is empower people to regain control,” said Dr Fabrice Bardy, the first author of the study from the University of Auckland – who has tinnitus.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Audiology and Otology, Bardy and colleagues report how 28 people completed the study, 14 of whom were asked to use the app’s virtual coach for 10 minutes a day for eight weeks. The other 14 participants were given similar instructions with four half-hour video calls with a clinical psychologist.

The participants completed online questionnaires before the study and after the eight-week period. The results reveal six participants given the app alone, and nine who were also given video calls, showed a clinically significant decrease in the distress caused by tinnitus, with the extent of the benefit similar for both groups. After a further eight weeks, a total of nine participants in both groups reported such improvements.

Brady said the team hoped to explore whether certain people benefited more than others from the additional support of a clinical psychologist, adding it could be that some experienced tinnitus alongside anxiety, stress or sleep disorders – meaning extra help was needed.

The team are about to launch a larger clinical trial of the app with University College London (UCL) hospital. Dr Lucy Handscomb of the UCL Ear Institute, who is involved in the trial, said in-person help for tinnitus was not easily accessible, while patients often experienced an increase in anxiety while they waited for therapy.

“My hope is that, by giving people access to this very carefully designed intervention early on in their journey with tinnitus, they will be prevented from ever entering some of the negative thought cycles that so often occur and be able to live well with their tinnitus from the start,” she said. “I don’t see MindEar as a replacement for tinnitus therapy in person but I think it could be a very valuable complement to it.”

The app is not the first of is kind. Among others is the Oto tinnitus app, which is the subject of a large clinical trial in the UK.

Matthew Smith, a consultant ENT surgeon at Cambridge University hospitals NHS foundation trust, who is involved in that trial, said apps may offer a valuable way to tackle tinnitus, particularly opening up treatment to many more patients. He also urged caution, noting CBT was only one aspect of tinnitus treatment.

“Hearing aid provision is an important part of tinnitus treatment for some people, and this presents a challenge for remote treatment,” he said. “[An] app alone is not a one-stop solution for everyone’s tinnitus but could provide valuable therapy to patients with this condition.”

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