Florida researchers find one in five college students may have misophonia – a hypersensitivity to sounds like lip smacking and pen clicking

Almost one in five college students is so sensitive to common, annoying sounds like lip smacking and pen clicking that they may have misophonia—a little-understood condition where people overreact to irritating noises. The results come from a University of South Florida study published in October 2014, where 483 students self-reported what sounds irritated them, and how they reacted. Among students who reported the strongest misophonia symptoms, more than half reported that their school and work lives suffered because of their discomfort and avoidance of triggering situations. While researchers have studied individual cases before, and even proposed diagnosis criteria for misophonia, this is the first study to estimate how widespread misophonia may be.

But do one in five people really have misophonia? Probably not. The authors point out that what they found among mostly white, female, middle-class college students is likely different from what they would find if they studied people who aren’t students at the University of South Florida. I also wonder how much the type of specific sounds varies between cultures. If the type does vary with culture, I would expect Americans to be more sensitive to loud eating noises, which are considered bad table manners.

Wu MS, Lewin AB, Murphy TK, & Storch EA (2014). Misophonia: incidence, phenomenology, and clinical correlates in an undergraduate student sample. Journal of clinical psychology, 70 (10), 994-1007 PMID: 24752915

What’s gnawing on Jane Austen’s hair?

An extreme close-up of one of Jane Austen's hairs, showing bits of skin (labeled 'S') and two different species of yeast ('M' and 'F').

An extreme close-up of one of Jane Austen’s hairs, showing bits of skin (labeled ‘S’) and two different species of yeast (‘M’ and ‘F’).

The years hadn’t been kind to the lonely lock of Jane Austen’s hair on display in a Hampshire museum. Light had bleached it to a straw color; only the shadowed underside remained its original brown. A few tiny flakes of skin still adhered, long after the legendary author had crumpled to dust. And the hair’s surface—visible only after vacuum coating it in a patina of carbon and metallic silver 2,000 times thinner than each hair itself, and then loading the coated hair into a Cambridge ‘Stereoscan Mk II’ scanning electron microscope*—was looking a little rough. To be more precise: a little gnawed.

So what was gnawing on Jane Austen’s hair nearly two centuries since it was detached from the dead author’s head?

In 1972, this wasn’t the most pressing question on the minds of the Jane Austen Society when they contacted Dr. J.A. Swift, a researcher in Middlesex, England. Concerned simply about the effects of display on the lock’s preservation, they asked him to examine a few hairs for signs of decay. But Dr. Swift saw more than some bleaching and dandruff: by using a powerful scanning electron microscope, he found what had been chewing on Austen’s hair.

The culprit? Yeast. But not the sort that ferments your beer and raises your bread: these were human scalp yeasts, which thrive on a diet of sweat and the waxy sebum that waterproofs our skin. Deprived of their food after Austen died and this lock of her hair was taken by her niece, Fanny Knight, the hungry yeast tried consuming the dead, flat scales of protein that make up human hair. But without a supply of their favorite sweaty food, they soon died themselves. Even now, their stringy, filamentous bodies remain tangled with the hair of their long-dead host.

A host who had unusually smooth, flat-surfaced hair—an indication that Austen’s hair must have been covered against the elements, and rarely combed in the last few years of her life. A state of hair which, Dr. Swift suggests, “might be consistent with an individual who placed little emphasis on the outward appearance of her hair.”

* The MkI was presumably in the shop.

Swift JA (1972). Scanning electron microscope study of Jane Austen’s hair. Nature, 238 (5360), 161-2 PMID: 4558459

Toxic levels of mercury contaminate 1 in 30 skin-lightening creams (and maybe not by accident)

Toxic levels of mercury contaminate about 1 out of 30 skin-lightening creams purchased in stores and online, according to an international team of researchers who measured mercury levels in more than 500 products worldwide. If you’re like me (pasty and with a family history of melanoma), then you may never have heard about these creams used by millions of women worldwide to smooth and lighten their skin color. When women apply these contaminated creams day after day, they are doing more than changing their skin: they are also dosing themselves with dangerous amounts of mercury that can damage their kidneys and poison their nervous systems.

Disturbingly, the most toxic creams may be best ones for lightening skin. The same traits that make mercury so deadly also make it great at disrupting the body’s ability to create melanin, which darkens our skin. This gives manufacturers a perverse incentive to ignore the FDA’s and European Union’s strict limits on mercury in cosmetics. Because the levels of mercury were so high in some products—up to 45,000 times the FDA’s limit, which is more than enough to sicken a large woman—the researchers accused manufacturers of deliberately adding the mercury to make their products more effective. And, unfortunately, more toxic.

But why would women use skin lighteners in the first place? I’d always assumed that prizing light skin was a legacy of Victorian colonialism and discrimination in the U.S. and Africa. But it turns out that China and India have long favored fair skin, thanks to its associations with being the pre-industrial equivalent of a wealthy person with an indoor desk job.  It’s easy to just dismiss women who use lightening creams as being vain—and the health risks they take as being deserved—but given the numerous social and career advantages afforded to attractive women, I think it would be equally possible to argue that they’re taking rational risks.

But I’m not going to argue for either vanity or rationality. Instead, I’m going to argue for giving the FDA and other countries’ enforcement agencies the means—and by means, I mean money—to better enforce their regulations. Because regardless of their motives—vanity, or logic—people deserve to be safe from exposure to one of the worst toxins out there.

Hamann C.R., Boonchai W., Wen L., Sakanashi E.N., Chu C.Y., Hamann K., Hamann C.P., Sinniah K. & Hamann D. (2013). Spectrometric analysis of mercury content in 549 skin-lightening products: is mercury toxicity a hidden global health hazard?, Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, PMID: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24321702