Could an app change the lives of tinnitus sufferers?

A training course and sound therapy delivered by a smartphone app can reduce the debilitating impact of tinnitus in as little as 8 weeks, according to findings published in a new paper in the journal Frontiers in Audiology and Otology.

The MindEar app is an accessible tinnitus management tool for patients, which is currently available for both iOS and Android in their respective app stores.

“MindEar uses a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness, and relaxation exercises as well as sound therapy to help you train your brain’s reaction so that we can tune out tinnitus,” says Suzanne Purdy, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland and a co-author on the paper.

“The sound you perceive fades in the background and is much less bothersome.”

A photograph of a pair of hands holding a smartphone with the mindear app displayed on its screen
The MindEar app includes training and education on tinnitus, helping patients better manage symptoms. Credit: MindEar

Tinnitus is not a disease in itself but is usually a symptom of another underlying health condition, such as damage to the auditory system.

People with tinnitus hear sound, such as persistent ringing, buzzing, roaring in one or both ears, which does not come from an external source. This sound is perceived as unpleasant, irritating, or intrusive and there is currently no cure.

Dr Fabrice Bardy, an audiologist at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and lead author of the paper, says that about 1.5 million people in Australia, 4 million in the UK, and 20 million in the USA have severe tinnitus.

“One of the most common misconceptions about tinnitus is that there is nothing you can do about it; that you just have to live with it. This is simply not true. Professional help from those with expertise in tinnitus support can reduce the fear and anxiety attached to the sound patients experience,” says Bardy.

Purdy says that cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is known to help people with tinnitus, but it requires a trained psychologist.

“That’s expensive, and often difficult to access,” she says.

While CBT doesn’t change the tinnitus sound itself, it can help to manage symptoms by helping patients to reframe the sound as less threatening and to the brain’s focus on the sound.

In this study, 28 adults with tinnitus participated in an 8-week intervention period. They used a tinnitus-specific CBT program provided through a chatbot called MindEar (originally named Tinnibot in the paper). Half of the participants participated in the MindEar program alone, while the other hybrid group also received video calls with a clinical psychologist.

A screenshot of the ai chatbot within the mindear app
The MindEar app is the world’s first AI companion created to help with tinnitus. Credit: MindEar

Clinical outcomes were measured using the Tinnitus Functional Index (TFI), a self-report questionnaire that measures the severity and negative impacts of tinnitus, and other questionnaires to assess anxiety and depression.

The researchers found that 64% of users of the chatbot saw clinical improvement at 2 months post-treatment, with no statistically significant difference between the intervention groups.

The researchers conclude that “internet-based delivery of CBT is effective in decreasing tinnitus distress, and levels of anxiety and depression, which is more relevant today than ever in the context of a global pandemic that has challenged the delivery of face-to-face intervention.”

And, while the addition of telepsychology might be beneficial, it isn’t essential for the MindEar’s effectiveness.

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