Okamoto, Hidehiko, Henning Stracke, Wolfgang Stoll, and Christo Panteva. “Listening to tailor-made notched music reduces tinnitus loudness and tinnitus-related auditory cortex activity.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 107 no. 3: 1207-1210. 19 Jan. 2010. Web. 17 Oct. 2011.
Tinnitus, a ringing in the ears that is thought to be caused by “maladaptive auditory cortex reorganization,” is loud enough to affect daily life for 1-3% of the population. Scientists are just beginning to find methods of treating the causes of tinnitus rather than addressing only the symptoms, and this study demonstrates one effective way to retrain the brain in order to limit the perception of tinnitus.
Hearing loss from tinnitus is caused by a “rewiring” that takes place within the central auditory system. The specific neurons affected do not stop functioning altogether, but start responding to neighbouring frequencies instead of the frequencies they used to receive. Tinnitus will not resolve on its own, but the use of “notched” music prepared specifically for each person treated has been shown in this study to reduce tinnitus loudness and reorganize neural activity in the auditory cortex.
Preparation of these “notched” recordings for the target patient group used music chosen by each patient from which the frequency band of the pitch heard by the patient as a result of tinnitus was removed using a digital filter. The scientists decided to have each patient pick her or his own music because they assumed that whatever the patient chose would hold her or his attention and cause the release of dopamine, since “joyful listening to music activates the reward system of the brain and leads to release of dopamine.” Dopamine has been shown to help in cortical reorganization.
After a year of treatment, the target patient group showed great improvements in terms of tinnitus loudness and auditory cortex activity related to tinnitus.
Tinnitus has always been a factor in my life. My father has experienced a loud ringing in the ears for as long as I can remember, and has never been able to find an effective way to reverse his hearing loss. I would be curious to see what this notched music treatment could do for him.
One thing I find particularly interesting about this study is the decision to have the patients choose which music to use for their treatment. As a music educator, I have been taught to give students choices in order to allow them to feel ownership of the work we do together. In my teaching as well as in everyday life, I have often observed that when a person is given an opportunity to have some say in what happens to her or him, the effects are tremendously positive. It is not surprising that allowing the patients in this study a say in what they would be listening to for a year probably made the treatment more effective.
How will the scientific world make notched music treatments available to the general public? Will there someday be digital notch filters in every family doctor’s office, or even just one in every major city? If the technology were to become accessible to everyone, imagine how much we could improve the quality of life for that 1-3% of the population with severe tinnitus.