As one of the most debilitating and perplexing mental illnesses known to the field of psychiatry, schizophrenia has been difficult to get a handle on for the medical community. This is one condition that can present a large range of different symptoms, ranging within disturbances in someone’s behavior, cognition, mood, speech, and just their general psychological state. Although no one experiences the exact same symptoms, one of the most trademark symptoms is the phenomenon of hearing voices. As wonderfully complex as the brain is, we’ve now gotten to the point where we can start to pinpoint some of the areas responsible for different functions.
Hearing Voices | Understanding Auditory Verbal Hallucinations
The official definition and characterization of schizophrenia according to the National Institutes of Health is as follows:
“Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and disabling mental disorder characterized by deficits in thought processes, perceptions, and emotional responsiveness.”
This mental illness affects nearly 1.1 percent of the total United States’ population, with 70 percent of those affected experiencing Auditory Verbal Hallucinations (AVHs). Now, recent studies have gotten closer to understand why so many people with schizophrenia actually hear voices in regards to the part of the brain responsible for this phenomenon.
Considering that the human brain is a complex wad of electrical signals and chemical reactions, the researchers in the study applied something called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS) to see its effects on AVHs. Although this technique has been used to treat other psychiatric conditions and even some forms of addiction, there have been few studies looking at what it can do for people with schizophrenia.
Essentially, this technology applies a series of magnetic pulses at 20 Hz targeting specific parts of the brain. In this study, the left lateral sulcus’s ascending branch and the left superior temporal sulcus were targeted since they have been associated with AVHs in previous research.
A Look at the Research
Before these treatments, the team utilized the standard Auditory Hallucinations Rating Scale Protocol to interview patients, having them describe the characteristics of the voices they experienced. Next, researchers looked at 33 control patients who received a placebo treatment alongside 26 experimental patients treated with the TMS — the results were quite astounding.
After 2 weeks, the team reportedly discovered that 34.6 percent of the patients in the experimental group showed a significant response to these treatments as opposed to 9.1 percent of the control patients. According to lead researcher, Sonia Dollfus:
“This is the first controlled trial to precisely determine an anatomically defined brain area where high-frequency magnetic pulses can improve the hearing of voices… This means two things; firstly, it seems that we now can say with some certainty that we have found a specific anatomical area of the brain associated with auditory verbal hallucinations in schizophrenia. Secondly, we have shown that treatment with high-frequency TMS makes a difference to at least some sufferers, although there is a long way to go before we will know if TMS is the best route to treat these patients in the long-term.”
Although it’s a somewhat modest response to this breakthrough, this study along with others of this nature represent an absolutely critical advancement in developing a treatment to this still mysterious mental disorder — particularly the symptom of hearing voices. Furthermore, a recent National Audit on Schizophrenia focusing on England and Wales uncovered that nearly 220,000 people in those countries don’t get the treatment they need — ultimately leading to a reduced life expectancy of an average of 20 years! Considering that this is a disorder that affects people all over the world, it’s clear that more research is needed and that TMS treatment might be entering the forefront of this difficult situation.
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