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The Same or Different? A Phenomenological Comparison of Auditory Verbal Hallucinations in Healthy and Psychotic Individuals

J Clin Psychiatry 2011;72(3):320-325
10.4088/JCP.09m05797yel

Objective: Whereas auditory verbal hallucinations (AVHs) are most characteristic of schizophrenia, their presence has frequently been described in a continuum, ranging from severely psychotic patients to schizotypal personality disorder patients to otherwise healthy participants. It remains unclear whether AVHs at the outer borders of this spectrum are indeed the same phenomenon. Furthermore, specific characteristics of AVHs may be important indicators of a psychotic disorder.

Method: To investigate differences and similarities in AVHs in psychotic and nonpsychotic individuals, the phenomenology of AVHs in 118 psychotic outpatients was compared to that in 111 otherwise healthy individuals, both experiencing AVHs at least once a month. The study was performed between September 2007 and March 2010 at the University Medical Center, Utrecht, the Netherlands. Characteristics of AVHs were quantified using the Psychotic Symptoms Rating Scales Auditory Hallucinations subscale.

Results: The perceived location of voices (inside/outside the head), the number of voices, loudness, and personification did not differentiate between psychotic and healthy individuals. The most prominent differences between AVHs in healthy and psychotic individuals were the emotional valence of the content, the frequency of AVHs, and the control subjects had over their AVHs (all P values < .001). Age at onset of AVHs was at a significantly younger age in the healthy individuals (P < .001). In our sample, the negative emotional valence of the content of AVHs could accurately predict the presence of a psychotic disorder in 88% of the participants.

Conclusions: We cannot ascertain whether AVHs at the outer borders of the spectrum should be considered the same phenomenon, as there are both similarities and differences. The much younger age at onset of AVHs in the healthy subjects compared to that in psychotic patients may suggest a different pathophysiology. The high predictive value of the emotional content of voices implies that inquiring after the emotional content of AVHs may be a crucial step in the diagnosis of psychotic disorders in individuals hearing voices.

J Clin Psychiatry 2011;72(3):320–325

Submitted: October 26, 2009; accepted January 27, 2010 (doi:10.4088/JCP.09m05797yel).

Corresponding author: I. Sommer, MD, PhD, Neuroscience Division, University Medical Center Utrecht, B01.206, Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience, Heidelberglaan 100 3584 CX Utrecht, the Netherlands (I.Sommer@umcutrecht.nl).