Discovering hyperacusis: Becoming sonder within sounds


Christopher Le

Dr. Ann Perreau in her office on May 12, 2023.

Victoria Campbell

Within the Augustana community is a unique group of students struggling with hyperacusis, a hearing disorder where sounds are perceived as loud, painful and even frightening, according to the Augustana website. Being in the workplace or at school during a passing period can become taxing for people with this auditory condition, and it can be an everyday problem. Further research into this condition is important to help these members of the community.

Recently, professor of communication sciences and disorders Dr. Ann Perreau has been awarded the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Grant which will be used to study hyperacusis. It is an award structured specifically to train undergraduate research students. This grant will help clinicians to practice client centered therapy on a small group and recognize their tenderness within sound. 

Dr. Perreau is one of the main coordinators of this project and will be working alongside additional colleagues and students such as junior Kierstyn Rogers and sophomore Christina Harvey.

Rogers plans to pursue an audiology doctorate after Augustana. She originally was on the route to pre-physical therapy, but eventually transitioned to something that motivated her more.

“I took the intro course, and it had a lot of information, but it just clicked with me. I understood a lot of the topics, and it was very easy to communicate with the faculty in the department. I really felt at home,” Rogers said. 

Now, she is prepared to pour her energy into her Senior Inquiry for the remaining time she has at Augustana. She, along with Harvey, will also contribute their passions that have carried them to be a part of Dr. Perreau’s research team for hyperacusis. 

Harvey had been asked by Dr. Perreau to be a part of the research team. She is applying material from her anatomy courses to help prepare herself for this project and educate others.

“[Hyperacusis] can deal with patients who deal with tinnitus problems or even hearing problems,” Harvey said. 

Harvey breaks down the layers of conditions someone with hyperacusis may experience. Many patients are vulnerable to comorbid conditions, which are simultaneously occurring conditions that clinicians must consider in their practice. For example, hyperacusis closely aligns with tinnitus in the sense that they are auditory conditions. 

“Hyperacusis is like the extreme reaction to loud sound, so if someone hears something loud, like bang, then they’ll have an intense reaction to it. Tinnitus is just the ringing in the ear,” Rogers said.

Harvey empathizes with the experience of patients with hyperacusis and elaborates on what that may feel like to someone else. It is a bothersome condition that negatively affects a patient’s quality of life. 

“They’re hearing these things instead of what it’s normally supposed to sound like. Or it’s like you’re underwater like you’re sick, but it’s like all the time,” Harvey said. 

Dr. Perreau is part of Augustana’s Communication Sciences and Disorders (CSD) staff and has been a mentor for research students. She is using her investigation and research skills on this clinical study to help her discover the effectiveness of different types of therapies. Perreau’s background has qualified her to begin her own research. 

“There’s lots of different causes for hyperacusis. It can be related to a disease or noise damage to the ear, but things like head trauma is one cause. Some people will just talk; there’s genetic causes. It’s also highly prevalent in autism,” Perreau said.

She intends to give patients remote counseling over the summer to see how exposure to different sounds helps with their condition. There is no current cure for hyperacusis, but Perreau and her team are responsible for treating patients the best they can to increase their quality of life. 

“The treatments are earplugs to lessen the noise, so you’re not hearing these bothersome sounds. It can be things like medications. We do see hyperacusis with related symptoms, things like anxiety and depression,” Perreau said.

With the additional struggles and mental conditions being considered, many patients find a benefit in seeing a psychologist or psychiatrist as well. Perreau implements mindfulness and stress eliminators into her practice so that her practice can be more than auditory exposure. 

“I work a lot with relaxation, meditation and counseling. Yeah, that’s very helpful. Counseling is the biggest one,” Perreau said. 

Perreau exercises double treatment. Beyond mental counseling, she tackles hyperacusis with sound therapy methods like white noise. These tactics will be implemented into the remote counseling sessions occurring over summer 2023 as well. 

“They would use [white noise] to help get them exposed to sound. Then we would actually work to increase the level over time, so that they can tolerate sounds and focus on that sound rather than the bothersome sound,” Perreau said. 

As far as the content covered in the research, sessions will occur online weekly. It will take the structure much like a school session, only for learning to accommodate noise. 

“We’re going to set it up so it’s videos, and they will watch videos. They will have some homework and quizzes and things to do. Then we will have some discussion, and we will have the participants meet each other and meet with myself and the student researchers,” Perreau said. 

The study will consist of two different groups using sound therapy. The purpose is to discover how to establish more effective treatment and connect with the clients and their condition so that further research can be utilized. 

“Some of them will wear devices… and then another group of participants would use an iPod and have sounds to listen to with noise canceling headphones, so we’re gonna see which of these sound therapy options is beneficial after they’ve received it,” Perreau said. 

This study will help to advance CSD students in pursuit of their degree and upgrade the technology and knowledge available for hearing disorders and teletherapy interactions. Harvey gives insight on what the interactions between students and their mentors will look like in this study. 

“You do your individual research and then come all together in our group meetings once a week, and then we’ll share what we learned,” Harvey said. 

Each member has the necessary preparation to qualify them for this research. They work both as a team and as individuals to build off of each other and then develop their own knowledge on hyperacusis. Rogers expands on how this environment has helped her and other students feel ready to interact with a complex condition. 

“The CSD department does a really good job of making sure everything is very structured so you’re not thrown into the wolves. There’s a lot of support from all of the professors,” Rogers said. 

Not only will this clinical study benefit the individuals with hyperacusis, but also the students as well. 

“First off is the idea that this opens up doors for students in terms of the research experience, so they’re going to learn firsthand how we go about designing, you know, implementing and executing a research study,” Perreau said. 

Rogers agrees that this research will help her in applying for graduate school. It is something that will set her apart and above the other candidates that she is up against. This study will mainly help students expand their level of experience and form connections that will benefit them in the future. 

“While I’m applying to grad schools, this is going to be something that I will be leaning heavily on and making connections with clients. Potentially, I may meet people to refer back to once I’m practicing, so it’s always nice to get a good understanding of demographics,” Rogers said.  

Along with developing a sense of professional experience, this research will help students to expand their understanding and attitude towards individuals with a communication disorder. 

“I feel like it’ll help me be more empathetic towards patients, especially if I work with patients who have hearing disorders, because learning the details of everything and how it can affect a person, it can make you feel really empathetic towards them because you have a deeper understanding then,” Harvey said.