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Training of the brain may help future tinnitus patients: “Many people suffer in silence”

PhD student Martin Jensen knows the stress and frustration connected to suffering from tinnitus. Through his research he is part of an upcoming research field, aiming to make life easier for tinnitus patients. He wants people to train their tinnitus better through their hearing aids.

It is there, when Martin Jensen goes to the grocery store. In the cinema, it is there, too. A constant tone in his head, which he can do nothing to stop.

Martin Jensen is writing a PhD, which is a collaboration between University of Marburg in Germany and Eriksholm Research Centre. Through his research, he aims at helping future tinnitus patients with solutions that can fit into a hearing aid.

The motivation was not difficult to find: Not only does he suffer from tinnitus himself, he also has a Master in Psychology, and the mental aspect of the condition interests him.

“The consequences can be that people get anxious, depressed, get sleeping problems, have difficulty in concentration, or may be unable to follow conversations. Those are big problems,” Martin Jensen explains, and continues: “Many people suffer in silence, and they don’t have any hope or possibilities right now. That is why it is important that the Oticon Foundation is actively funding this area now.”

Training of the brain may help tinnitus patients

Most people know tinnitus as a constant tone in their head. To be more precise, it is a noise in your head with no physical source, which can be perceived in different ways: for instance as a tone or electrical noise. The intensity and the psychological stress caused by it varies from person to person.
But there is no cure.

Former research, however, suggests that training of the brain can actually relieve your tinnitus by both decreasing the noise and improve the psychological response. This kind of training is called neurofeedback training.

“By using neurofeedback, it is possible to change the activity in the brain by giving visual feedback on brain activity,” says Martin Jensen.

Martin and his team hope to prove that the training helps tinnitus patients and in the future maybe even put it into a hearing aid.

Neurofeedback training fiddles with the brain activity

‘The activity’ of the brain is the communication of millions of brain cells, which can have different levels of intensity – different frequencies. The more they process, the faster they communicate. If you are sleeping, for instance, the communication will be rather slow, while it will be fast, when you try to solve a mathematics assignment.

The rate of the communication is divided into five kinds of activity: delta, teta, alpha, beta, and gamma. They all exist simultaneously, but some are more dominant in specific situations than others. While sleeping, you will have a lot of delta-activity, and if you are daydreaming teta/alpha activity will be more dominant.

Research indicates a neural signature of tinnitus consisting of a decreased alpha activity, an increased delta activity, and an increased gamma activity compared to normal hearing people.

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What is tinnitus?

When you get tinnitus, the signal from cochlea to the primary auditory cortex disappears due to damage of the hair cells in cochlea. Instead, the cells in the primary auditory cortex starts to communicate spontaneously, which creates the tinnitus sound.

Researchers are quite certain that some kind of hearing impairment in many cases causes the miscommunication in the brain, hence the tinnitus, but there is still no clear explanation on how tinnitus begins.


Alpha controls the sound – delta makes you stressed

Martin Jensen and his team are testing a specific alpha/delta training, which is supposed to make the alpha activity more dominant, and the delta activity less dominant. Alpha activity inhibits spontaneous activity and makes it possible to be aware of something specific even in a noisy environment. It is somehow a control mechanism.

“Current research suggests that when you have tinnitus, the alpha activity is not strong enough in the temporal cortex, where the primary auditory cortex is, because the neurons are in hibernation mode due to lack of input. That means that nothing is holding back the neurons from making the permanent sound,” explains Martin Jensen.

An increased alpha may therefore reduce the sound level and intensity of the spontaneous sound.

Delta activity, on the other hand, is stronger for tinnitus patients. That can be because a lesion has happened in the auditory cortex.

“We want to reduce delta in order to tip the balance to bring the neurons closer to work as normal in the part with the lesion,” says Martin Jensen.

Furthermore, the distress from having a constant noise in your head may be caused by the connection of different parts of the brain, which delta is orchestrating. A reduced delta activity may mean that the mental load can be less for tinnitus patients.

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“It is exactly like training your muscles in the gym”

When doing the actual neurofeedback training, the test subjects are sitting in front of a computer, while watching an animation. When the brain activity exceeds a specific frequency value, it will be rewarded with a pleasant animation of for instance a water fall. The animation stops, when the activity is lower than the limit value.

“The clever thing is that the brain finds a pattern, without needing any effort from the test subject. Like when you first had to learn how to ride a bike. You can’t explain how you learned it, it just happened. That is the same with neuro feedback,” explains Martin Jensen.

Martin Jensen and his team are the first to test the alpha/delta training in a randomized double-blind test to make sure that former good results of the test are not just due to a placebo effect. To do so, the test subjects are divided into three groups: One doing beta/teta training, one doing alpha/delta training, and a control group.

“We will put electrodes four places on the head of the test subjects, while they do the training of alpha and delta activity. Over time that will most likely increase the brain activity. It is exactly like training you muscles in the gym until they get bigger,” says Martin Jensen.

Tinnitus training in future hearing aids?

If it turns out that this kind of training is effective, Martin Jensen hopes it will be an integrated part of hearing aids for tinnitus patients in the future.

“If it works, we can develop a training, which can be done at home,” he says. 

“I believe we can get some knowledge out of this, which can be interesting for Eriksholm. This may even be a way to make younger tinnitus patients wear a hearing aid.”


Read more news from Eriksholm Research Centre here.