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Hate the sound of noisy eating? Here’s what you need to know about misophonia

Misophonia is a sound sensitivity disorder. And until now, the condition was considered the result of anxiety, but researchers from Newcastle University believe they have found an underlying, physiological cause.

Do the sounds of crunching, chewing and heavy breathing drive you nuts? New research suggests that misophonia is the real deal – people may be hypersensitive to these sounds because of changes in brain structure.

Misophonia, dubbed as a selective sound sensitivity syndrome, comes with a handful of “trigger sounds.” The noises could come from eating, breathing loudly, or whistling. Sometimes, a sound as trivial as a foot tapping or a person yawning is enough to leave you irritated or even angered.

Sound familiar?

In a new study, scientists out of Newcastle University in the U.K. say that they’ve uncovered “first evidence” of clear changes in the brain’s frontal lobe that explain why some people grapple with misophonia.

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“Patients with misophonia had strikingly similar clinical features and yet the syndrome is not recognized in any of the current clinical diagnostic schemes. This study demonstrates the critical brain changes as further evidence to convince a skeptical medical community that this is a genuine disorder,” Dr. Sukhbinder Kumar, from the university’s Institute of Neuroscience, said in a statement.

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So for those of us living with misophonia, Kumar is offering a reprieve. You’re not imagining your condition, he said.

“For many people, this will come as welcome news as for the first time we have demonstrated a difference in brain structure and function in sufferers,” he said.

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Misophonia was first identified in 2001. But for years, the medical community was undecided about its legitimacy.

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Kumar and his team used MRI brain scans to study frontal lobe activity in people with misophonia as they listened to a handful of sounds.

They ranged from neutral – a busy café or rain falling, to unpleasant sounds – a baby crying or a person screaming, to trigger sounds such as breathing and chewing.

So what were researching watching for on the brain scans as the volunteers heard these sounds?

Turns out, when study participants with misophonia heard the trigger sounds, brain activity went up in the frontal lobe area and the anterior insular cortex (AIC). The AIC is in the grey matter part of the brain and is tied to processing emotions.

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In volunteers without misophonia, activity went up only in the AIC but went down in the frontal lobe.

The researchers think this difference may be key to explaining why some people are sensitive to this noise.

These are just preliminary steps, though. Kumar said he hopes his research will unravel more details, including treatment options.

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“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,” he said.

His full findings were published in the journal Current Biology.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

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