Warm milk, melatonin pills, or even prescription pills are all used to avoid a dreaded condition known as insomnia. Each of these methods have different degrees of side effects and success. For the 50 percent of Americans who suffer from insomnia, what if sleep could be reached not by medication, but through regulating brain activity?

A new clinical study in the journal Brain and Behavior, was done to decide whether a non-invasive method, using musical tones to regulate brain activity, can actually reprogram the brain, resulting in insomnia prevention.

Charles H. Tegeler, M.D., professor of neurology at Wake Forest Baptist and principal investigator of the study explained:

“The human brain is made up of the left and right hemispheres that work together as parallel processors. When a person undergoes trauma or a major stressor, their autonomic survival responses kick in and the brain can become unbalanced.

If those imbalances persist, symptoms such as insomnia can result. Our study looked at a new technology that is intended to facilitate greater balance and harmony in brain frequencies, which may result in improved symptoms.”

This new technology is known as HIRREM, or high-resolution relational resonance-based electroencephalic mirroring. It is publicly known as Brainwave Optimization.

This method is non-invasive and uses a system that is made to send the brain’s frequencies back to itself through the use of musical tones. Resonance between the electrical energy and the musical tones in a person’s brain can create an equilibrium in the two hemispheres of the brain.

Based on an alteration in the Insomnia Severity Index (ISI), the study findings examined the severity of sleep disruption using a 0 to 28 point scale. The median ISI for the study volunteers fell between 18.7 and 18.9, which is classified as moderate to severe insomnia.

The HIRREM group was seen to have a 10.3 point decrease in ISI, improved symptoms of insomnia, and changed into a clinical category of “sub-threshold insomnia” or “no insomnia”.

The control participants, who still went on with their existing insomnia treatment without HIRREM, exhibited no change in ISI. Although, when the crossover control group had HIRREM therapy, the outcomes were extremely similar to those of the original HIRREM group.

The crossover, wait-list control, and unblinded study consisted of 20 volunteers, 14 females and 6 males. The researchers randomly selected 10 people to receive HIRREM treatment, plus normal care; the other 10 were in the wait-list control group.

A primary examination found that the balance in range and frequencies between the brain hemispheres and data collection included a participant’s ISI as well as blood pressure and neurocognitive function tests.

The randomly selected participants that underwent HIRREM treatment had eight to twelve sessions each lasting between 60 and 90 minutes. These sessions included relaxing in a zero gravity chair and putting sensors over many locations on both sides of their head.

Then, a musical tone measured by a mathematical algorithm and based on the primary frequency in a floating center range of the volunteer’s EEG frequencies, was played back to the participant through headphones. Resonance between fluctuating brain circuits and musical tones is made to permit the brain to auto-calibrate, leading towards better regulation and a link to less symptoms.

Limitations present in the study include the few number of participants and the lack of a sham-placebo control group which hampered blinding. Therefore, it is possible that the changes seen with HIRREM, could be due to a placebo effect. Also, because HIRREM therapy consists of relaxation and social interaction, there could be separate non-specific mechanisms for improvement besides the tonal reflections.

Even though the investigators think that the degree of improvement and time period points to serious change through HIRREM, the authors plan to conduct a larger clinical trial with a sham placebo, to verify the HIRREM effect and explore deeper this technology.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald