PULLMAN, WA—If you’ve ever been startled from your sleep by the loud sound of non-existent noises, you are not alone. In what may have sounded like an early April Fool’s Day hoax to some but was not, Washington State University (WSU) issued a press release on March 30 reporting that researchers there “have found that an unexpectedly high percentage of young people experience ‘exploding head syndrome,’ a psychological phenomenon in which they are awakened by abrupt loud noises, even the sensation of an explosion in their head.”
A call to WSU’s psychology clinic confirmed that its director, Brian Sharpless, PhD, had, indeed, found that 18% of 211 undergraduate students interviewed by psychologists or graduate students said they had experienced this phenomenon at least once. Sharpless, an assistant professor of psychology at WSU, added, “Unfortunately for this minority of individuals, no well-articulated or empirically supported treatments are available, and very few clinicians or researchers assess for it.”
As if exploding head syndrome were not bad enough, Sharpless’s study found that more than a third of those who experience it also suffer from isolated sleep paralysis, in which a person wakes up and is initially unable to move or speak.
Sharpless reported the results of the study in the March 13 issue of the Journal of Sleep Research. In his paper, “Exploding head syndrome is common in college students,” he wrote that the syndrome had been hypothesized to be rare and to occur primarily in people over 50 years of age. However, the WSU study found a relatively high incidence among undergraduates.
Sharpless said of exploding head syndrome, “Although episodes by themselves are relatively harmless,” they were sometimes “accompanied by clinically significant levels of fear.” He added, “Given the potential clinical impacts, it is recommended that it be assessed more regularly in research and clinical settings.”
In an interview with Eric Sorensen, a science writer at WSU News, the psychologist said that the disorder tends to come as one is falling asleep. Sharpless explained, “Researchers suspect it stems from problems with the brain shutting down. When the brain goes to sleep, it’s like a computer shutting down, with motor, auditory, and visual neurons turning off in stages. But instead of shutting down properly, the auditory neurons are thought to fire all at once.”
According to the American Sleep Association, exploding head syndrome “is thought to be highly connected with stress and extreme fatigue in most individuals.” However, it added, “What actually causes the sensation in individuals is still unknown, though speculation of possible sources includes minor seizures affecting the temporal lobe, or sudden shifts in middle ear components.”