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Why Schizophrenics Hear Voices

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Schizophrenia is a frightening disease, characterized by audio and visual hallucinations.

A researcher at Duke University thinks he may have a clue as to how the auditory hallucinations occur.

Duke neurobiologist Richard Mooney said there is a long history of research that indicates that the way we hear is influenced by what we see happening around us.

"That happens during speech, during musical performance, when we can anticipate a noise that we might make, or maybe somebody else might make," he said on The State of Things.

The new research indicates that a breakdown in the neural pathways that establish this interaction may cause auditory hallucinations in people with schizophrenia.

"Auditory hallucinations are a common symptom in people who have schizophrenia," said John Gilmore, vice chair for research and scientific affairs in the department of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Though they aren't unique to those with mental illness, Gilmore said.

"I think everybody's heard a voice every once in a while," he said.

But the hallucinations in schizophrenia can be persistent and disturbing, requiring medical intervention. Fortunately, there are already established treatments for schizophrenia, Gilmore says.

"The mainstay of treatment are anti-psychotic medications...they tend to be reasonably effective at treating the positive symptoms," Gilmore said.

But they're not perfect.

"The antipsychotics that we use also affect all different kinds of receptors and all different parts of the brain," he said.

Gilmore said that Mooney's research could have powerful implications for the treatment of schizophrenia.

Audio for this segment will be up by 4 p.m.

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Alex Granados joined The State of Things in July 2010. He got his start in radio as an intern for the show in 2005 and loved it so much that after trying his hand as a government reporter, reader liaison, features, copy and editorial page editor at a small newspaper in Manassas, Virginia, he returned to WUNC. Born in Baltimore but raised in Morgantown, West Virginia, Alex moved to Raleigh in time to do third grade twice and adjust to public school after having spent years in the sheltered confines of a Christian elementary education. Alex received a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He also has a minor in philosophy, which basically means that he used to think he was really smart but realized he wasn’t in time to switch majors. Fishing, reading science fiction, watching crazy movies, writing bad short stories, and shooting pool are some of his favorite things to do. Alex still doesn’t know what he wants to be when he grows up, but he is holding out for astronaut.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.