'Exploding Head Syndrome' in Young People More Common Than Thought

A surprisingly high number of young people experience “exploding head syndrome,” a psychological event in which a person is startled awake by a loud noise, or even the sensation of an explosion in the head, according to a new study by researchers at Washington State.

Based on smaller, less rigorous studies, some researchers had previously hypothesized that exploding head syndrome is a rare condition found mostly in people older than 50. The new findings, however, show that nearly one in five, or 18 percent, of college students reported having experienced exploding head syndrome at least once. In fact, it was so bad for some that it significantly impacted their lives.

“Unfortunately for this minority of individuals, no well-articulated or empirically supported treatments are available, and very few clinicians or researchers assess for it,” ┬ásaid Dr. Brian Sharpless, a Washington State University assistant professor and director of the university psychology clinic.

Sharpless also discovered that more than one-third of those who had exploding head syndrome have also suffered from isolated sleep paralysis, a frightening experience in which one cannot move or speak upon waking up.

The study is the largest of its kind, with 211 undergraduate students interviewed by psychologists or graduate students trained in recognizing the symptoms of exploding head syndrome and isolated sleep paralysis.

“I didn’t believe the clinical lore that it would only occur in people in their 50s,” said Sharpless. “That didn’t make a lot of biological sense to me.”

As he began reviewing the scientific literature on the disorder for the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews, Sharpless began to wonder if perhaps exploding head syndrome was a lot more common than thought. In that report, he concluded the disorder was a largely overlooked phenomenon that warranted a deeper look.

Exploding head syndrome tends to occur as one is falling asleep. Researchers suspect it is triggered when the brain has trouble 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, Sharpless said.

“That’s why you get these crazy-loud noises that you can’t explain, and they’re not actual noises in your environment,” he said. The same part of the brain, the brain stem’s reticular formation, appears to be involved in isolated sleep paralysis as well, which may be the reason why some people experience both problems, Sharpless added.

The phenomenon can be extremely frightening. Although it typically lasts only a few seconds, exploding head syndrome can make people think they’re having a seizure or a subarachnoid hemorrhage, said Sharpless.

“Some people have worked these scary experiences into conspiracy theories and mistakenly believe the episodes are caused by some sort of directed-energy weapon,” he said.

Some people are so alarmed by the event that they don’t even tell their spouse, he said. “They may think they’re going crazy and they don’t know that a good chunk of the population has had the exact same thing,” he said.

The findings are published in the Journal of Sleep Research.

Source: Washington State University