Hot flushes are the most common symptom of the menopause, and the most difficult to live with.
A rise in skin temperature in the face and the upper body causes blood vessels just under the skin to dilate, leading to the characteristic “flushed” look, as well as a feeling of overwhelming heat and sweating.
While the exact cause isn’t known, one theory is there’s a malfunction of the temperature control mechanisms in the brain, possibly as a result of the fall in oestrogen levels that occur around the menopause.
Many treatments have been tried and all but HRT have had limited success. But now a device with special headphones that allows patients to “listen” to their brainwaves could be a novel way to tackle hot flushes.
It’s known as HIRREM (high-resolution, relational, resonance-based, electroencephalic mirroring), and works by detecting changes in the brain’s activity. It has three components: scalp sensors, a computer and headphones. First, sensors on the scalp monitor electrical activity in the brain.
These signals are sent to the computer which is programmed to translate them into sounds.
This series of sounds is then sent through wires to headphones worn by the patient – the whole process takes less than eight milliseconds.
The theory is that hearing the sounds alerts the brain to any malfunction, which it then corrects. For example, if the tones are too erratic it will reset the signals to make the pattern more regular and balanced.
In a 2015 pilot study of 12 menopausal women given the treatment, researchers found it led to significant reductions in the frequency and severity of hot flushes, as well as reduced symptoms of insomnia and depression. Around 50 women are now taking part in a clinical trial of the device in the US.
This technique is also being investigated for post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia and high blood pressure – all thought to be linked to irregular signals in parts of the nervous system.
In the study, 48 women will be given 20 sessions over three months, each roughly 90 minutes long, or continue with standard care such as hormone replacement therapy. Symptoms will then be compared.
Commenting on the research, Haitham Hamoda, a consultant gynaecologist at King’s College Hospital in London, said: “Other studies along similar lines have shown a beneficial effect with cognitive behavioural therapy in managing hot flushes and, therefore, there is merit in further exploring this concept.
“The results from the study are awaited with interest.”