Washington University researchers might have found a way to help people who are bothered by hearing a constant noise deal with it.

Professor Jay Piccirillo, MD, professor of otolaryngology, and one of the participants in the tinnitus treatment study, Jacqueline Richardson (right).  (photo courtesy; Washington University School of Medicine)

Professor Jay Piccirillo, MD, professor of otolaryngology, and one of the participants in the tinnitus treatment study, Jacqueline Richardson (right). (photo courtesy; Washington University School of Medicine)

It’s called tinnitus; a condition in which patients hear a so-called phantom noise, often described as a buzzing, humming or tapping. About 80 percent of patients are able to essentially ignore it, but the other 20 percent have difficult concentrating. It interferes with work, sleep, and relationships.

Washington University School of Medicine researchers including Professor Jay Piccirillo came up a possible treatment to help people function in spite of the noise.

“If tinnitus patients were taking this drug and doing a brain training program to help strengthen the neurons, could the people on the drug actually do it faster than [those on] a placebo?” Piccirillo says the study asked.

It found that they could, and enjoyed, “a significant improvement in some tinnitus measure and a greater improvement in their self-reported cognitive problems. In other words, they were thinking better.”

The drug being used, d-cycloserine, encourages neuroplasticity – a state in which the brain is more susceptible to change. That meant it made the brain more receptive to the conditioning treatment patients underwent while using it.

“It does get into the central nervous system and works with the neurotransmitters to help the brain learn faster,” says Piccirillo.

Piccirillo emphasizes the treatment doesn’t actually fight the condition.

“All of our treatment’s been focused on getting people not to be bothered by it,” says Piccirillo. “Giving them the tools and techniques so that they can redirect away from the tinnitus and not focus on it, and not let it get in the way of their life.”

The original work only involved about 30 subjects using the brain training two days a week. He says the next step will be to repeat the experiment with a bigger test group, undergoing the treatment for longer periods.

“Using the brain fitness training program for five days instead of the shortened, abbreviated version, and see if we can get a better effect on tinnitus relief and improvement in cognition.”

The larger study would see if the same combination of the drug and the fitness program would yield the same benefits to a larger group of participants.