Hearing Messages

January 2008 - Research from Yale School of Medicine published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2007 has found that hearing messages embedded in meaningless noise could be an early sign of schizophrenia.

The study included 43 people diagnosed with "prodromal symptoms"- meaning they exhibited early warning signs of psychosis such as social withdrawal, mild perceptual alterations, or misinterpretation of social cues. Participants were randomly assigned to take the anti-psychotic medication olanzapine or a placebo. Symptoms and neuropsychological function then were assessed for up to two years.

Participants initially were tested using a "babble task" in which they listened with headphones to overlapping recordings of six speakers reading neutral texts, making the words effectively incomprehensible. They then were asked to repeat any words or phrases heard. Only four were consistently reproduced: "increase", "children", "A-OK", and "republican".

The study found that 80 per cent of participants who "heard" phrases of four or more words went on to develop a schizophrenia-related illness when not taking olanzapine compared to only 6 per cent if the phrases were less than three words in length.

Lead author, Ralph Hoffman, associate professor of psychiatry said:

"A tendency to extract message-like meaning from meaningless sensory information can, over time, produce a 'matrix of unreality' that triggers the initial psychotic phase of schizophrenia-spectrum disorders."

The researchers call for further studies to verify these findings but suggest they could provide an inexpensive way of identifying individuals with early warning signs of schizophrenia who would most likely benefit from preventive drug therapy.

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