Do Certain Sounds Enrage You? Neurologists May Know Why

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iStock

If the sound of a co-worker repeatedly clicking his pen can send you into a flaming furor, take heart: You’re not being hypersensitive, and you’re not alone. Neurologists in the UK have spotted physical differences in the brains of people with this sound-related rage, although whether these differences are the cause or the result of the disorder remains to be seen. The scientists published their findings in the journal Current Biology.

The technical term for that noise-triggered irritation and rage is misophonia (“hatred of sound”). People who have it experience uncontrollable and intense negative emotions after hearing certain repetitive noises like chewing, lip-smacking, pen-clicking, and foot-tapping.

It’s a relatively new concept within the medical community, although people have been complaining of symptoms for a long time. To those who’ve never experienced misophonia, it may sound silly or made-up—which is what many doctors have concluded. Others have categorized it as a form of anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The authors of the current paper wondered if the problem might not be psychological but neurological. They recruited 20 British adults with misophonia and 22 without, and gave them all questionnaires to gauge their responses to various noises. Then they put each participant inside MRI and fMRI machines and played them all sorts of noises, including the benign (a kettle whistling, rain), the universally unpleasant (a baby crying, someone screaming), and common misophonia triggers (breathing, chewing).

As the researchers suspected, the results for the two groups looked very different. People with misophonia had more myelin, or insulation, around the gray matter in their prefrontal cortex. They also showed abnormal connections between this cortex and the anterior insular cortex, which is involved in processing information and emotions.

Hearing the trigger noises caused a spike in activity in both cortices for people with misophonia. For people without it, activity only increased in the prefrontal cortex. The trigger sounds also provoked a clear stress response in people with misophonia. Their heart rates increased and they began sweating.

Lead researcher Sukhbinder Kumar is a neuroscientist at Newcastle University and University College London. He says his team’s research should reassure people with misophonia and validate the condition’s existence to their doctors.

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

It also suggests a possible way of treating the condition. “My hope is to identify the brain signature of the trigger sounds,” Kumar said. “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."

Feeling Stressed? Playing Tetris Could Help Relieve Your Anxiety

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iStock/Radachynskyi

When Nintendo released their handheld Game Boy system in the U.S. and Japan in 1989, the first game most users experimented with was Tetris. Bundled with the system, the clever puzzler—which prompts players to line up a descending array of tiles to create horizontal lines—was the video game equivalent of an addictive drug. Some players described seeing the shapes in their dreams. The game was in the hands of 35 million portable players; by 2010, it had sold 100 million smartphone downloads.

Now, there’s evidence that Tetris players may have a solution to anxiety in the palms of their hands. According to a paper published in the journal Emotion, Tetris has the capability to relieve stress and troubling thoughts by providing a form of distraction.

As part of a larger study about the benefits of distraction, researchers at the University of California, Riverside conducted an experiment on 309 college students who were told to expect some anxiety-provoking news: They were told someone would be offering an evaluation of their physical attractiveness. While they waited for their results, a third of the subjects played a slow-moving, beginner-level version of Tetris; another group played a high-speed variation; and a third played an adaptive version, which automatically adjusted the speed of the game based on the player’s abilities.

Tetris games that were too slow or too fast bored or frustrated players, respectively. But the game that provided a moderate challenge helped reduce the subjects’ perception of their stress levels. They reported a quarter-point higher level of positive emotions on a five-point scale and a half-point reduction of negative emotions. The students still worried about the results of the attractiveness evaluation, but they experienced fewer negative feelings about it.

The key, according to the study, is that the students were experiencing “flow,” a state of mind in which you’re so engrossed in an activity that you lose your sense of self-awareness. While Tetris may be one of the best ways to quickly fall into flow, anything that consumes your attention—playing music, drawing, cooking—is likely to work.

The next time you have to wait for potentially life-altering news, you may find that a Tetris session will help you cope.

[h/t NPR]

9 Fascinating Facts About the Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is so named because it “wanders” like a vagabond, sending out sensory fibers from your brainstem to your visceral organs. The vagus nerve, the longest of the cranial nerves, controls your inner nerve center—the parasympathetic nervous system. And it oversees a vast range of crucial functions, communicating motor and sensory impulses to every organ in your body. New research has revealed that it may also be the missing link to treating chronic inflammation, and the beginning of an exciting new field of treatment for serious, incurable diseases. Here are nine facts about this powerful nerve bundle.

1. THE VAGUS NERVE PREVENTS INFLAMMATION.

A certain amount of inflammation after injury or illness is normal. But an overabundance is linked to many diseases and conditions, from sepsis to the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis. The vagus nerve operates a vast network of fibers stationed like spies around all your organs. When it gets a signal for incipient inflammation—the presence of cytokines or a substance called tumor necrosis factor (TNF)—it alerts the brain and draws out anti-inflammatory neurotransmitters that regulate the body’s immune response.

2. IT HELPS YOU MAKE MEMORIES.

A University of Virginia study in rats showed that stimulating their vagus nerves strengthened their memory. The action released the neurotransmitter norepinephrine into the amygdala, which consolidated memories. Related studies were done in humans, suggesting promising treatments for conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

3. IT HELPS YOU BREATHE.

The neurotransmitter acetylcholine, elicited by the vagus nerve, tells your lungs to breathe. It’s one of the reasons that Botox—often used cosmetically—can be potentially dangerous, because it interrupts your acetylcholine production. You can, however, also stimulate your vagus nerve by doing abdominal breathing or holding your breath for four to eight counts.

4. IT'S INTIMATELY INVOLVED WITH YOUR HEART.

The vagus nerve is responsible for controlling the heart rate via electrical impulses to specialized muscle tissue—the heart’s natural pacemaker—in the right atrium, where acetylcholine release slows the pulse. By measuring the time between your individual heart beats, and then plotting this on a chart over time, doctors can determine your heart rate variability, or HRV. This data can offer clues about the resilience of your heart and vagus nerve.

5. IT INITIATES YOUR BODY'S RELAXATION RESPONSE.

When your ever-vigilant sympathetic nervous system revs up the fight or flight responses—pouring the stress hormone cortisol and adrenaline into your body—the vagus nerve tells your body to chill out by releasing acetylcholine. The vagus nerve’s tendrils extend to many organs, acting like fiber-optic cables that send instructions to release enzymes and proteins like prolactin, vasopressin, and oxytocin, which calm you down. People with a stronger vagus response may be more likely to recover more quickly after stress, injury, or illness.

6. IT TRANSLATES BETWEEN YOUR GUT AND YOUR BRAIN.

Your gut uses the vagus nerve like a walkie-talkie to tell your brain how you’re feeling via electric impulses called “action potentials". Your gut feelings are very real.

7. OVERSTIMULATION OF THE VAGUS NERVE IS THE MOST COMMON CAUSE OF FAINTING.

If you tremble or get queasy at the sight of blood or while getting a flu shot, you’re not weak. You’re experiencing “vagal syncope.” Your body, responding to stress, overstimulates the vagus nerve, causing your blood pressure and heart rate to drop. During extreme syncope, blood flow is restricted to your brain, and you lose consciousness. But most of the time you just have to sit or lie down for the symptoms to subside.

8. ELECTRICAL STIMULATION OF THE VAGUS NERVE REDUCES INFLAMMATION AND MAY INHIBIT IT ALTOGETHER.

Neurosurgeon Kevin Tracey was the first to show that stimulating the vagus nerve can significantly reduce inflammation. Results on rats were so successful, he reproduced the experiment in humans with stunning results. The creation of implants to stimulate the vagus nerve via electronic implants showed a drastic reduction, and even remission, in rheumatoid arthritis—which has no known cure and is often treated with the toxic drugs—hemorrhagic shock, and other equally serious inflammatory syndromes.

9. VAGUS NERVE STIMULATION HAS CREATED A NEW FIELD OF MEDICINE.

Spurred on by the success of vagal nerve stimulation to treat inflammation and epilepsy, a burgeoning field of medical study, known as bioelectronics, may be the future of medicine. Using implants that deliver electric impulses to various body parts, scientists and doctors hope to treat illness with fewer medications and fewer side effects.

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