To a chef, the sounds of lip smacking, slurping and swallowing are the highest form of flattery. But to someone with a certain type of misophonia, these same sounds can be torturous. Brain scans are now helping scientists start to understand why.
People with misophonia experience strong discomfort, annoyance or disgust when they hear particular triggers. These can include chewing, swallowing, slurping, throat clearing, coughing and even audible breathing. Researchers previously thought this reaction might be caused by the brain overactively processing certain sounds. Now, however, a new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience has linked some forms of misophonia to heightened “mirroring” behavior in the brain: those affected feel distress while their brains act as if they are mimicking the triggering mouth movements.
“This is the first breakthrough in misophonia research in 25 years,” says psychologist Jennifer J. Brout, who directs the International Misophonia Research Network and was not involved in the new study.
The research team, led by Newcastle University neuroscientist Sukhbinder Kumar, analyzed brain activity in people with and without misophonia when they were at rest and while they listened to sounds. These included misophonia triggers (such as chewing), generally unpleasant sounds (like a crying baby), and neutral sounds. The brain’s auditory cortex, which processes sound, reacted similarly in subjects with and without misophonia. But in both the resting state and listening trials, people with misophonia showed stronger connections between the auditory cortex and brain regions that control movements of the face, mouth and throat. Kumar found this connection became most active in participants with misophonia when they heard triggers specific to the condition.
“Just by listening to the sound, they activate the motor cortex more strongly. So in a way it was as if they were doing the action themselves,” Kumar says. Some mirroring is typical in most humans when witnessing others’ actions; the researchers do not yet know why an excessive mirroring response might cause such a negative reaction, and hope to address that in future research. “Possibilities include a sense of loss of control, invasion of personal space, or interference with current goals and actions,” the study authors write.
Fatima Husain, a University of Illinois professor of speech and hearing science, who was not involved in the study, says potential misophonia therapies could build on the new findings by counseling patients about handling unconscious motor responses to triggering sounds—not just coping with the sounds themselves. If this works, she adds, one should expect to see reduced connected activity between the auditory and motor cortices.