Hallucinations have been the seeds of inspiration of legendary filmmakers such as Luis Buñuel, Terry Gilliam or David Lynch. Auditory hallucinations are a major symptom of schizophrenia. These inner voices people hear in the absence of any external acoustic input can be very disruptive for health and for social life. Professor Kenneth Hugdahl, who holds an ERC Advanced grant, has developed an IPhone app to help patients to re-focus their attention. Based at the University of Bergen in Norway, he participates in the “Horizons for Social Sciences and Humanities” conference in Vilnius on 23 and 24 September 2013 and exposes the first results of his ERC project.
“Hearing voices may be more common than we actually think. Patients with schizophrenia as well as ‘healthy’ people experience this phenomenon; the latter just seem to have another way to cope and interpret what they hear” Prof Hugdahl says. His initial research aims at localizing brain areas that are involved in auditory hallucinations. He uses imaging techniques such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) that allow tracking neuronal activation in the left temporal lobe speech perception area. In his VOICE project, he showed that auditory hallucinations (inner voices) generate activity in the speech regions in the left hemisphere in a very similar way as real auditory input.
Commenting about the progress of his research, he explains: "We expected that patients with auditory hallucinations would also hear outer voices and that they would have a much higher activation in the upper left temporal lobe. Very surprisingly, it is as if they shut down the outer world and switch their attention fully to the inner voices. Science is paradoxical in that way.”
In order to help patients to inhibit the inner voices, Prof Hugdahl turned to cognitive training. He subjected some of his patients to dichotic listening, a test where they are presented with two different sounds in each ear and are asked to focus their attention. “Since our patients hear strong inner voices and weak outer voices, we train them so they will be able to focus on the outer sounds.”
With the ERC grant he obtained in 2009, Prof Hugdahl and his research team had the idea to design an IPhone app to perform such training in a more autonomous way. The advantages of this technology are remarkable; instead of having to come to the laboratory and have headphones connected to a computer, patients can train themselves to ignore the inner voices while in the bus or when walking.
Prof Hugdahl comments: “A young PhD student of my team actually suggested me the idea of an iPhone app. For patients, it can be frustrating and time-consuming to get an appointment at the lab every time they need to practice. Now they can do the training at their best convenience, especially when they are experiencing strong auditory hallucinations”. “Our patients appreciated it a lot” he adds. “The training doesn’t work on each and every person, but young people respond positively, perhaps because they are used to this interface. Many of them reported that it helped them a lot.”
Science is about ideas
Optimistic by nature, Prof Hugdahl sees many good reasons for applying to an ERC grant. ”An ERC grant can tremendously change one’s career. The ERC requires new and unique ideas, the kind that no one has ever applied before”. He stresses: “It forces scientists to be creative, and it actually made me think in a new direction. This prestigious grant is also recognized in Europe, and it helps to recruit the best young researchers in a team.”
On a more philosophical ground, Prof Hugdahl shares with us a distinction between “science” and “research”: “People tend to use these words interchangeably. I believe that science is an idea while research is about all the things to test the idea. This goes for the ERC which is all about the core of science. That is precisely what I like about the ERC. I hope its uniqueness, based on scientific excellence, will remain the same under the new research programme Horizon 2020.”