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Medical experts look at how white noise could impact the brain

White noise machines can serve several purposes, but some scientists are taking a closer look at possible unintended consequences of exposure.

WEST COLUMBUS - Many parents have turned to white noise to help soothe their baby to sleep. Adults who suffer from Tinnitus can also use ambient sounds to help mask ringing in the ears.

White noise machines can serve several purposes. However, a new report is causing some to have second thoughts about using them.

A new review published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology scrutinizes the possible unintended consequences of white noise. The doctors involved found using the machines long-term could change the brain's pathway.

"It is a good review, because it cautions people to think about the fact that there are other things you can do and they may take more time and energy than just getting a white noise generator but they'll get you further, faster," said Gail Whitelaw, Ph.D. Clinical Associate Professor and Director of The Ohio State University Speech-Language-Hearing Clinic when asked about the published review. "White noise might seem like a short-term solution, but not long-term help."

The report detailed the brain’s ability to rewire itself anatomically and neurochemically on the basis of incoming information. The researchers said that repeated exposure to white noise could cause the brain to age faster.

The Jama review read, in part:
"We argue that white noise exposure, a commonly recommended therapy for patients with tinnitus, engages these plastic processes in a way that induces maladaptive changes in the brain that degrade neurological health and compromise cognition.

Observations The pathophysiologic mechanisms commonly associated with hearing loss and tinnitus reflect cortical dedifferentiation and widespread loss of inhibitory tone throughout the central auditory pathway. Importantly, these same changes are also induced by exposure to unstructured noise, even at nontraumatic levels in the adult nervous system. Not by coincidence, the same changes appear in age-related decline of central auditory function, suggesting that both tinnitus and white noise accelerate the aging of the brain.

Conclusions and Relevance Noise exposure therapies offer a seductive short-term solution for relief but, in the long term, undermine the functional and structural integrity of the central auditory system and the brain more generally. Sound therapies using unstructured, random (“white”) noise should be avoided as a treatment for tinnitus. Alternative therapeutics that drive positive, adaptive plastic changes are discussed."

"The brain needs downtime from auditory information. We can't be constantly bombarding it," said Whitelaw. "I think we're on the brink of a new era of figuring out how all that stimulation may impact us. May impact our auditory system, may impact our brains."

Whitelaw has directed some patients suffering from Tinnitus to cognitive behavioral therapy and other treatments involving noise habituation.

"There are things we can do to treat Tinnitus," said Whitelaw. "But many people become desperate so they go online and look at Dr. Google and say 'hey I'm going to buy a white noise generator or "T-Be-Gone" or some other kind of supplement,' but their time and money can be better spent if they start with a visit to an audiologist."

Local mom and certified sleep consultant Amy Douglas attributes the need for sleep as the reason many families to use the machines. "Is your child getting good, quality, sound sleep now? Are they able to learn or are they missing out on those opportunities? Those are some of the questions I ask parents before we talk about white noise," said Douglas. She said she also makes sure sound levels stay at or below 50 decibels.

Douglas uses a white noise machine to help her 4- and 5-year old sons to sleep. She said it prevents them from waking up as she makes noises downstairs. Douglas said she put thought into which machine to use, ensuring it was quiet enough and simple to use. She said she also made sure her children had no health problem preventing them from sleep before introducing the device.

"Don't just run out and buy something because it sounds good," said Whitelaw. "I would encourage people to approach all of this with caution. Just because something sounds good doesn't mean it is good. I hate to see people waste time and money."

You can read the review on white noise by clicking here.

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