Hearing management

06 February 2017

Why certain noises really irritate some people

People who suffer from 'misophonia' cannot stand specific sounds. These sounds can trigger a strong 'fight or flight' response in those with the disorder.

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Most people can recall a time when a certain sound annoyed them – say when your office mate was repeatedly clicking his pen – but some people find such sounds utterly unbearable. And new research suggests that brain abnormalities may explain why.

Brains in overdrive

People with a disorder called misophonia have an intense hatred of specific sounds, such as chewing, breathing or repeated pen clicking. These triggers can cause an immediate and strong "fight or flight" response in those with the disorder.

Read: Brain disorders

"I hope this will reassure sufferers," the study's senior author Tim Griffiths said in a news release from Newcastle University.

"I was part of the sceptical community myself until we saw patients in the clinic and understood how strikingly similar the features are," he added. Griffiths is a professor of cognitive neurology at Newcastle University and University College London in the United Kingdom.

The researchers conducted brain scans of 20 people with misophonia. They also conducted brain scans on 22 healthy people for comparison. Among those with the condition, brain scans showed an abnormality in their emotional control mechanism that puts their brains into overdrive when they hear trigger sounds.

The scans also revealed that brain activity in people with the disorder originates from a different connectivity pattern in the frontal lobe. This area normally suppresses an abnormal reaction to sounds, the study authors explained.

Abnormal emotional reactions

In addition, the researchers found that trigger sounds had physical effects, such as increased heart rate and sweating in people with misophonia.

The findings may help eventually lead to treatments for this condition, said Griffiths. The study may also prompt researchers to look for similar changes in the brain in other disorders associated with "abnormal emotional reactions", he said.

Read: Brain harmonics

Study leader Sukhbinder Kumar added that "for many people with misophonia, this will come as welcome news, as for the first time we have demonstrated a difference in brain structure and function in sufferers". Kumar is also from the Institute of Neuroscience at Newcastle University and University College London.

Kumar said people with this disorder had very similar signs and symptoms. "Yet, the syndrome is not recognised in any of the current clinical diagnostic schemes. This study demonstrates the critical brain changes as further evidence to convince a sceptical medical community that this is a genuine disorder," he said in the news release.

"My hope is to identify the brain signature of the trigger sounds – those signatures can be used for treatment, such as for neuro-feedback for example, where people can self-regulate their reactions by looking at what kind of brain activity is being produced," Kumar said.

The findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

Read more:

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Dr Kara Hoffman graduated from UCT in 2004, thereafter she completed her year of community service in Durban. In 2010 she completed her Masters Degree in Paediatric Aural Rehabilitation from UKZN. In 2016, she became a Doctor of Audiology through the University of Arizona (ATSU). Dr Hoffman and her partner Lauren Thompson opened a fully diagnostic audiology practice called Thompson & Hoffman Audiology Inc. In 2011 with world-class technology and equipment to be able to offer the broad public all hearing-related services including hearing testing for adults and babies, vestibular (balance) assessments and rehabilitation, industrial audiology, hearing devices, central auditory processing assessments for school-aged children, school screening, neonatal hearing screening programmes at Alberlito and Parklands Hospital, cochlear implants and other implantable devices, medicolegal assessments and advanced electroacoustic assessments of hearing. Thompson and Hoffman Audiology Inc. are based at Alberlito Hospital in Ballito, St Augustines Hospital in Durban and at 345 Essenwood Road, Musgrave. The practices are all wheelchair friendly. There are three audiologists that practice from Thompson & Hoffman – including Dr Kara Hoffman, Lauren Thompson & Minette Lister. The practice boasts professional, highly qualified, and extensive diagnostic services where all your hearing healthcare needs can be met. The additional licensing in vestibular assessment and rehabilitation, paediatric rehabilitation and cochlear implantation places this practice in one of the top specialist audiological positions in South Africa, with a wealth of experience in all clinical areas of audiology and is a very well respected and sought-after practice.

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