There is a physical reason why some people can’t stand certain sounds

6 Feb 2017

Image: Voyagerix/Shutterstock

The reason behind some people’s hatred of particular sounds might be neurological, as scientists identify a part of the brain that reflects misophonia.

Our underlying dislike – or outright hatred – for some particular sounds may seem like grumpiness, but researchers from Newcastle University may have a found a physiological reason for this anguish.

Using magnetic resonance imaging, the research team discovered a physical difference in the frontal lobe between the cerebral hemispheres in people who had misophonia.

Trigger sounds

This is a disorder found in many people who find they have ‘trigger’ sounds that can not only put them on edge, but can also illicit an extreme response whereby the person’s heart rate, sweating and anxiety levels increase.

While someone might find the sound of a baby crying annoying, trigger sounds have been identified as everyday noises, such as the sound of someone eating or even breathing.

In a study published to Current Biology, Dr Sukhbinder Kumar and his team found that people with the condition have abnormal connections between the frontal lobe of the brain and and an area called the anterior insular cortex (AIC).

A brain overload

Buried deep within a fold at the side of the brain, the AIC is believed to be central to the processing of emotions and signals from the outside world. People with misophonia are believed to have a heightened response in both the AIC and frontal lobe.

Upon hearing trigger sounds, the brain of a person who does not have the condition will show increased activity in the AIC, but decreased activity in the frontal lobe. People with misophonia have increased activity in both cases.

This, the team believes, indicates some problem with the control mechanism between the two, thereby explaining the physiological reason as to why they become so upset.

Possible therapeutic solutions

Despite initial scepticism over finding such a link between a person’s reaction and their brain, Prof Tim Griffiths of Newcastle University said this research offers real hope for people with misophonia.

“We now have evidence to establish the basis for the disorder through the differences in brain control mechanism in misophonia,” he said.

“This will suggest therapeutic manipulations, and encourage a search for similar mechanisms in other conditions associated with abnormal emotional reactions.”

Dr Kumar added that the next step for research is to identify the brain signature of the trigger sounds for use in neurofeedback treatment for people to self-regulate their own reactions.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic