The Dark Side of White Noise

review just published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology questions whether white noise generators — boxes that make static-like sound and are often recommended for relaxation, sleep, masking other noises in the workplace, and tinnitus therapy — may be doing more harm than good. The article is written by neuroscientists affiliated with the University of California San Francisco and with Posit Science, the maker of BrainHQ online brain training.

White noise is a random signal that has equal intensities across frequencies, making it seem ideal for masking or blocking out other noises, for example in the workplace or when trying to sleep. It also is frequently recommended for patients with tinnitus — a persistent ringing in the ears. Tinnitus affects an estimated 50 million Americans and is severe and disabling in an estimated 2 million. There is no cure, nor any widely accepted course of treatment for tinnitus.

White noise generators first gained popularity in the 1960s. 

“In the past 50 years, brain scientists have learned a great deal about brain plasticity — how sensory and other inputs change the brain chemically, structurally, and functionally,” said lead author Dr. Mouna Attarha. “Increasing evidence shows that the brain rewires in a negative manner when it is fed random information, such as white noise. Neural inhibition (the ability to filter unimportant information) is reduced; temporal integration times (how quickly the brain processes rapidly changing signals) lengthen; and cortical representations (how information is represented in the brain) lose precision.”

These maladaptive changes in the brain have consequences that, with time, compromise other brain systems, including processing speed, attention, memory, and executive function. 

Studies on the impact of unstructured noise on tinnitus further argue for caution in its use as a therapeutic. The authors write that such strategies may be “driving patients’ brains further toward, rather than away from, the pathological disinhibitory state that has long been associated with tinnitus.”

As an alternative form of sound therapy, the authors recommend exploring the use of structured sounds – such as music and speech – to mask or cover the phantom sounds heard in the head by tinnitus patients. This approach may have none of the negative impact on the structural and functional integrity of the brain.

The authors cite a 40-person 2017 study, conducted at Washington University in St. Louis, using auditory exercises found in BrainHQ. Magnetic resonance imaging in that study showed strengthening in areas associated with control and attention. On a qualitative assessment, 50 percent of the participants reported improvement as compared to 15 percent in the control, with no significant difference between groups on self-report cognitive and behavioral measures. BrainHQ productization for tinnitus is subject to further research and regulatory approvals.

The review concludes that a noisy environment produces a noisy brain. Effective resolution of tinnitus will require neuroplasticity-based programs that can remodel and restore the organization of the brain. “Only then,” note the authors, “shall we do no harm.”

Author(s) on this Post

Diane Ako

Peace of mind By Diane Ako I like to reflect on life. Sometimes it’s philosophically. Sometimes it’s humorously. For all its beauty, life is far too difficult a journey to take alone. You need the support and connection with others to help carry you along the way. Writing brings me that connection– within and without. It clarifies my thoughts and feelings. It helps me reach out to others for advice, wisdom, or feedback. Your thoughts become your actions. Your actions become you. A wise yogi- Patanjali- said, “Speak what is true. Speak what is pleasant.” Let’s speak of things pleasant to one another and seek some peace of mind along the way. ABOUT Diane Ako joined Hawaii: In Real Life in October 2016. She likes being part of a community of local bloggers – people who like writing and sharing, like she does. Ako is an anchor/ reporter at Island News (KITV4 – ABC) in Honolulu. She previously anchored and reported at KHON2 (FOX) and KHNL (NBC), and at stations in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania. She freelance writes for NMG Network's magazines. In between news jobs, in 2017, she launched and ran her own p.r. company, Diane Ako PR. From 2010-2014, she headed the public relations department at Halekulani Corporation, which oversees luxury resort Halekulani and boutique hotel Waikiki Parc. She’s been blogging since 2009 – before Hawaii: IRL, she wrote for The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, the state’s largest daily newspaper, where her stories garnered a dozen journalism awards and an Emmy nomination. Ako has a BA in Communications from Menlo College and an MA in Political Science from University of Hawaii at Manoa. She volunteers as a board member of the Honolulu Gay & Lesbian Cultural Foundation, a Shinto shrine maiden at Daijingyu Temple, a citizen-scientist studying shrimp, and a yoga teacher at a senior center.

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