The Motor Basis for Misophonia

J Neurosci. 2021 Jun 30;41(26):5762-5770. doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.0261-21.2021. Epub 2021 May 21.


Misophonia is a common disorder characterized by the experience of strong negative emotions of anger and anxiety in response to certain everyday sounds, such as those generated by other people eating, drinking, and breathing. The commonplace nature of these "trigger" sounds makes misophonia a devastating disorder for sufferers and their families. How such innocuous sounds trigger this response is unknown. Since most trigger sounds are generated by orofacial movements (e.g., chewing) in others, we hypothesized that the mirror neuron system related to orofacial movements could underlie misophonia. We analyzed resting state fMRI (rs-fMRI) connectivity (N = 33, 16 females) and sound-evoked fMRI responses (N = 42, 29 females) in misophonia sufferers and controls. We demonstrate that, compared with controls, the misophonia group show no difference in auditory cortex responses to trigger sounds, but do show: (1) stronger rs-fMRI connectivity between both auditory and visual cortex and the ventral premotor cortex responsible for orofacial movements; (2) stronger functional connectivity between the auditory cortex and orofacial motor area during sound perception in general; and (3) stronger activation of the orofacial motor area, specifically, in response to trigger sounds. Our results support a model of misophonia based on "hyper-mirroring" of the orofacial actions of others with sounds being the "medium" via which action of others is excessively mirrored. Misophonia is therefore not an abreaction to sounds, per se, but a manifestation of activity in parts of the motor system involved in producing those sounds. This new framework to understand misophonia can explain behavioral and emotional responses and has important consequences for devising effective therapies.SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT Conventionally, misophonia, literally "hatred of sounds" has been considered as a disorder of sound emotion processing, in which "simple" eating and chewing sounds produced by others cause negative emotional responses. Our data provide an alternative but complementary perspective on misophonia that emphasizes the action of the trigger-person rather than the sounds which are a byproduct of that action. Sounds, in this new perspective, are only a "medium" via which action of the triggering-person is mirrored onto the listener. This change in perspective has important consequences for devising therapies and treatment methods for misophonia. It suggests that, instead of focusing on sounds, which many existing therapies do, effective therapies should target the brain representation of movement.

Keywords: auditory; fMRI; mirror neurons; misophonia; motor system; resting state connectivity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / physiopathology*
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiopathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Mirror Neurons / physiology*
  • Neural Pathways / physiopathology*
  • Noise*