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Neurobiology of Auditory Hallucinations  

Judith M. Ford, Holly K. Hamilton, and Alison Boos

Auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH), also referred to as “hearing voices,” are vivid perceptions of speech that occur in the absence of any corresponding external stimulus but seem very real to the voice hearer. They are experienced by the majority of people with schizophrenia, less frequently in other psychiatric and neurological conditions, and are relatively rare in the general population. Because antipsychotic medications are not always successful in reducing the severity or frequency of AVH, a better understanding is needed of their neurobiological basis, which may ultimately lead to more precise treatment targets. What voices say and how the voices sound, or their phenomenology, varies widely within and across groups of people who hear them. In help-seeking populations, such as people with schizophrenia, the voices tend to be threatening and menacing, typically spoken in a non-self-voice, often commenting and sometimes commanding the voice hearers to do things they would not otherwise do. In psychotic populations, voices differ from normal inner speech by being unbidden and unintended, co-opting the voice hearer’s attention. In healthy voice-hearing populations, voices are not typically distressing nor disabling, and are sometimes comforting and reassuring. Regardless of content and valence, voices tend to activate some speech and language areas of the brain. Efforts to silence these brain areas with neurostimulation have had mixed success in reducing the frequency and salience of voices. Progress with this treatment approach would likely benefit from more precise anatomical targets and more precisely dosed neurostimulation. Neural mechanisms that may underpin the experience of voices are being actively investigated and include mechanisms enabling context-based predictions and distinctions between experiences coming from self and other. Both these mechanisms can be studied in non-human animal “models” and both can provide new anatomical targets for neurostimulation.