It sounds ironic, but a team of German scientists claim that specially modified music therapy can ease the symptoms of tinnitus, the chronic “ringing in the ears” which plagues millions of people worldwide.

Conventional wisdom says that the background noise level in major cities actually contributes to tinnitus, which affects primarily middle-aged and older people in Western countries. Up to 20 per cent of people between 55 and 65 may suffer from the symptoms, which including a constant ringing or buzzing sound in the ears.

But researchers at the Westfalia Wilhelms University in Muenster, Germany, under the supervision of Christo Pantev, found that it is possible to alleviate that ringing by carefully “administering” sound of frequencies other than those which cause the ringing. In essence, the scientists were able to condition the patients’ minds to “ignore” the tinnitus frequencies and to focus only on the pleasant musical frequencies.

In a 12-month study at the university’s Institute for Biomagnetism and Biosignal Analysis, Pantev and his associates were able to reverse the symptoms of tinnitus, which he terms “maladaptive auditory cortex reorganization.” Writing in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Pantev, said, “because cortical organization can be modified by behavioural training, we attempted to reduce tinnitus loudness by exposing chronic tinnitus patients to self-chosen, enjoyable music, which was modified (’notched’) to contain no energy in the frequency range surrounding the individual tinnitus frequency.” By training the mind to listen only to the pleasurable frequencies, the positive side effect appeared to be that the mind paid less attention to the “maladaptive” ringing symptoms.

“After 12 months of regular listening,” Pantev wrote, “the target patient group showed significantly reduced subjective tinnitus loudness and concomitantly exhibited reduced evoked activity in auditory cortex areas corresponding to the tinnitus frequency compared to patients who had received an analogous placebo notched music treatment.” Tinnitus is not technically speaking a disease, but rather a symptom with a myriad of possible causes, ranging from damage to the ears, ear infections or even prolonged exposure to loud noise.

Because it is highly subjective and difficult to measure, many cases go undiagnosed, despite the fact that chronic tinnitus is associated with severe emotional distress by sufferers who say the constant ringing prevents them sleeping, concentrating or just enjoying life.

While most discussions of tinnitus tend to emphasize physical mechanisms, there is strong evidence that the level of an individual’s awareness of their tinnitus can be stress-related, and so should be addressed by improving the state of the nervous system generally, using gradual, unobtrusive, long-term treatments.

The scientists pursued that course of therapy, using behavioural modification to condition the patient to concentrate on pleasurable sounds - in this case, MP3 earphone music of their own choosing - while paying less attention to the annoying tinnitus symptoms.

After one year of listening to their favourite “notched” tunes, test subjects reported a significant decrease in the loudness of their ear ringing, Pantev wrote. What is more, brain scans revealed reduced activity in the auditory cortex corresponding to the tinnitus frequency.

“These findings indicate that tinnitus loudness can be significantly diminished by an enjoyable, low-cost, custom-tailored notched music treatment, potentially via reversing maladaptive auditory cortex reorganization,” Pantev wrote.

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