Wind Farms, Infrasound And The Brain

By Neuroskeptic | July 16, 2015 10:33 am

An alarming news story appeared on Monday in the Daily Telegraph:

Wind turbines may trigger danger response in brain

The low frequency noises from turbine blades can be picked up and can trigger a part of the brain linked to emotions, scientists have found…

Brain scans show that even infrasound as low as 8 Hz – a whole octave below the traditional cut off point for human hearing – is still being picked up by the primary auditory cortex, the part of the brain which translates sounds into meaning. And a separate part of the brain, linked to emotions, also lit up.

What’s curious about this is that the research in question wasn’t about wind turbines, and has not been published anywhere yet, as far as I can tell.

The source of the story is a press release from the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) of Germany. The press release gives an overview of the research, which used fMRI and synthetic (not wind turbine) infrasound. It doesn’t refer to any peer-reviewed journal papers or even to a presentation at a conference.

I searched Google Scholar for publications by the lead researcher, Christian Koch (not to be confused with Christof Koch), on “infrasound”. This revealed two conference papers but neither of them used fMRI. More on those later.

The fMRI results do appear in a January 2015 newsletter produced by the research team involved, the EARS Project. This has a few more methodological details, including that there were 16 participants, but it also says (emphasis mine) that

The fMRI results indicate an involvement of auditory cortex in the processing of almost all the presented stimuli. No other brain regions were observable for the statistical threshold at p < 0.001 and a cluster size > 22 voxel.

So in January, the fMRI results showed auditory cortex activation only. I’m not sure where the press release’s “reaction in certain parts of the brain which play a role in emotions” – or as the Telegraph misreport it, “danger response” – came from.


Of course, this newsletter was an informal update, not a scientific presentation. But this is precisely why the PTB press office shouldn’t be sending out press releases yet.

We will have to wait until the fMRI data are properly published before we know whether 8 Hz stimulation induces fMRI signal. One reason to wait is that these authors have previously measured auditory cortex responses to 8 Hz infrasound using a different brain scanning tool, magentoencephalography (MEG). The results were rather lukewarm:


As you can see, sound of higher, audible, frequencies induces an auditory evoked response potential (ERP), peaking at around 120 milliseconds after the sound plays, localized over the auditory cortex.

However, at 8 Hz (bottom right panel), I don’t see any ERP. The response looks like a flatline to me. The authors refer to a subgroup of participants who do show a robust 8 Hz ERP, but no statistical details are provided.

I’m not criticizing the authors or trying to ‘get’ them by pointing out ‘inconsistencies’. As a researcher, I know that a lot can change between early presentations (e.g. internal communications, newsletters, conference abstracts) and the final analysis (published papers). That’s how science works. Obsessing over such discrepencies makes you a conspiracy theorist, not a scientist.

My point is simply that if research hasn’t been definively published, then it’s not finalized, and shouldn’t be publicized.

This is especially true when it comes to a controversial topic such as wind farms and renewable energy. Alarmist journalists and climate ‘sceptic’ blogs have already reported on – or copy-pasted – the press release with the implication that wind farms are harmful.

Of course Koch and colleagues didn’t say that. And I’m sure that the press officers at the PTB don’t approve of how their release is being politicized. But the scientific illiteracy of the scaremongers in this area is a well-known fact. Also well known is the tendency for colorful brain images to attract attention. The alarmism, therefore, was predictable.

  • D Samuel Schwarzkopf

    Great post. This again reminds me why I also think preprints of unpublished manuscripts aren’t a great idea. There have been numerous cases of preprints on arXiv being misrepresented by the mainstream media. I know this isn’t quite the same as what seems to have happened in this particular case but it’s certainly similar.

    I’ve had this discussion on and off with various people who think (pre-publication) peer review is not really required. I disagree. While peer review isn’t perfect I think every manuscript should have to pass a modicum level of scrutiny before we should accept it as a “publication”. I am all for making this process more transparent and ending the obsession with novelty but I think some vetting is necessary. Only publications that have passed this initial threshold should be deserve press releases that then get widely misreported 😛

    Obviously, this won’t fix the problem entirely. Even peer-reviewed publications can still contain errors or simply be wrong. But if we break down the barriers between blog posts and reviewed publication entirely I can only see the situation becoming much worse.

    • Victoria

      I agree, peer review is necessary.

      I have actually participated in peer reviews for a psycholinguistic journal, and some of the experiments people attempted to get published were very poorly done – drawing conclusions that did not follow the data presented, failing to take key variables into account, sample sizes too small to test for significance, and so on. Science is not advanced by publishing sloppy research.

  • Tannahill Glen

    wonder if response to this and other critiques of the concept:

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  • Jim LeSire

    Whete does it say that wind farms produce an 8Khz vibration? And if they don’t, then where’s the connection?

    • 7eggert

      8 Hz (not kHz), which is an obvious, possible frequency when you look at the wind turbines.

      Previously a connection between these low frequencies and people feeling sick was denied because the human ear cannot process frequencies below about 18 Hz and because only some people are affected.

      I guess it’s like animals fleeing from volcanoes before they erupt, they get “bad vibes” and leave while most humans don’t. The people who can feel the turbines would feel like I’d feel sitting on an erupting volcano, blindfolded.

      • Jim LeSire

        Ah, thank you. I missed that missing K.

  • Uncle Al

    My sources say that wind farms the world over have been hacked by stateless improvised expulsive terrorists to simultaneously blast brown noise to end unholy dominions, 11 September 2015.

    • Dustin Ragan

      My sources say that Don Quijote is our only hope against the terrible terror of the turbines!

      • Uncle Al

        I keep a bucket of saline by the front door, re triffids (and Newcomers). I have no problem with adding a copy of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha next to The Book of Mormon, 1976 (re Seventh Day Adventists). Youtube v=fSwjuz_-yao

  • Ketan Joshi

    This has already been publicised in our right-leaning, national Murdoch paper, by a journo who’s obsessed with with wind turbine syndrome:

    • Neuroskeptic

      That’s a good post! Thanks.

  • OWilson

    These researches should stand at the corner where I work. Subway construction, high rise construction and jammed bus, truck and car traffic. Fire and police sirens,

    The decibel level is a nightmare, and anywhere near Gitmo it would be perceived as torture :) It IS driving us crazy!

    Wind turbines are not even in the same league :)

  • Richard Mann

    Who wrote this column? Is “Neuroskeptic” a screen name?

    Anyway, one should not be surprised that humans respond to infra sound. This goes back to early studies by US department of Energy.

    Here is a “time line” showing the history of Wind Turbine Noise
    problems, going back as far as 1979. Each entry provides documentation:

    1979 “First complaints received from a dozen families within a 3km radius of turbine”.
    1981 “Wind turbine operation creates enormous sound pressure waves”
    1982 “Closed windows and doors do not protect occupants from LFN”
    1982 “NASA research on human impacts provided to wind industry”
    1985 “Hypothesis for infrasound-induced motion sickness”
    1987 “Wind industry told that dB(A) unsuitable to measure LFN emissions from wind turbines”

    2004 “Wind industry knows noise models inadequate” (from Vestas)

    2011 “Vestas knew that low frequency noise from larger turbines needed greater setbacks”

  • templeruins

    The Telegraph, enough said.

  • TLongmire

    If Buddhism ever adopts a scientific approach this type of research will be paramont. Induce trance at low frequency then fade to 40Hz then liberation.

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  • John H.

    Infrasound from windfarms is negligible. However there are many studies on chronic exposure to very high dB infrasound, especially in relation to military aircraft crews, which do demonstrate that very severe physiological effects can occur. This is not about perception it is about cellular-mechanical disruption. There are confounders because the relevant environments do involve high vibration levels but the studies do seem to isolate infrasound as a major issue. Go to pubmed…. string .. infrasound cellular military, 13 hits, with many noting neurologic issues.

  • Van Snyder

    If you oppose wind, why bother getting worked up about this? The Paul Scherer Institute in Basel, Switzerland (the EC “go to” contractor for all things related to safety) has 45,000 entries in its database of energy-related accidents and deaths. They reported that there were 88 wind-related deaths in Britain in 2012 alone. Meanwhile, their same database shows that the average death rate due to nuclear-energy-related causes is one per year, worldwide. Notwithstanding irrational innumerate anti-nuclear hysteria, nuclear is the safest-ever way to make electricity.

    Other than not being all that safe, and emitting more CO2 per KWh over their lifetimes than nuclear does, and never being able to provide more than 12% of humanity’s energy, there’s nothing seriously wrong with wind power.

    • Cad Xbow

      You & the Swiss seem to have forgotten the hundreds of miners who develop lung and other cancers, pneumoconiosis and other diseased which kill them. The NIOSH study found 600+ extra deaths in uranium miners in the US since the 1950’s. World wide there would be thousands who have died mining yellow cake. To say the nuclear industry causes 1 death per year is at best disingenuous and at worst a lie.

      • Van Snyder

        That’s a good historical point, but all forms of hard-rock mining have become much safer during the last half century. That averages out to ten deaths per year, and is certainly declining. Records at the Scherer Institute show that 88 people died in wind-related accidents in Britain alone in 2012 alone. Even now, 5000 coal miners die every year, and several people and organizations have estimated that 30,000-50,000 Americans die every year from the effects of burning coal. I suspect that there are miners who die from mining the enormous amounts of minerals that would be necessary to make enough solar panels to power the world’s energy economy, or the enormous quantities of concrete needed for the footings of windmills. If we confine our attention to electricity production alone, rather than construction, transportation, production, fueling, decommissioning… the statement was accurate.

        If we were to build the variety of power reactors recommended by “Smarter Use of Nuclear Waste” in December 2005 Scientific American, called Integral Fast Reactors, or IFR, which could consume the substance we call “waste” from light-water reactors (actually valuable 5%-used fuel) we would not need to mine, mill, or refine uranium for a very long time. If we only replaced the United States’ current fleet of light-water reactors (90 GWe capacity), it would take more than 6000 years to burn the unused fuel and the waste from weapons production. If we powered the entire American energy economy (about 1700 GWe) with IFR, it would take over 300 years.

        The waste from IFR consists of fission products, not transuranics. Since the fuel is entirely consumed, the amount of fission products is 5% the amount of “waste” from current reactors. After about ten years of storage, only 1/5 of fission products are sufficiently radioactive to need special custody, and that for only 300 years instead of 300,000 years. So we make the problem 100 times smaller, and the duration of confinement 1000 times shorter. The net effect is that IFR effectively destroys nuclear waste, rather than creating it. Nothing else can do this.

  • Kevin Dooley

    For a somewhat different interpretation of the Wind Turbine issue, take a look at the video at this link

  • Rich Hare

    The low frequency sound coming from my neighbor’s car is triggering a dangerous response out of me!!

  • duelles

    Try living for a year near the entrance to the holland tunnel in NYC. Noise is noise, earplugs required – only kill off 32 db.

  • Richard Mann

    “Professor denied access to Health Canada wind turbine data”. Wind Concerns Ontario, May 20, 2015.

    Despite a claim by staff in the Healthy Environments and Consumer Safety Branch of Health Canada in a meeting with Wind Concerns Ontario last November, that data from the Wind Turbine Noise and Health study would be available to Canadians, via universities and research projects, the health ministry is actually rebuffing attempts to use the data for independent study.

    Staff attending that meeting included project director David Michaud and policy director Tara Bower.

    As part of his submission to the Australian Senate inquiry into wind turbines, associate professor Richard Mann of the University of Waterloo makes note of a paper recently presented at an international noise conference in Glasgow, and further mentions the fact that access to the taxpayer-funded Health Canada data has been refused.

    Professor Mann states:

    Our research paper has just been presented in Glasgow, Scotland. The citation is: J. Vanderkooy and R. Mann. “Measuring Wind Turbine Coherent Infrasound”. Wind Turbine Noise 2015, INCE/EUROPE, Monday 20th April to Thursday 23rd April 2015.
    Glasgow, Scotland. Link:

    I recently learned that Health Canada has collected extensive measurements of wind turbine noise, including infra sound, as well as wind turbine operational data, Link:

    Repeated requests to Health Canada, either to work together, or to study the data independently, have been denied. Accordingly, I have filed the following “access to information” request, listed below.

    A-2015-00042: Wind Turbine Noise and Health Study. MG Acoustics was contracted by HC to study infra sound. Request all correspondence between HC and MG. Also request all raw data collected by MG for this contract. This includes all microphone, microbarometer, vibration, weather station, and turbine operational data (turbine orientation, RPM, power output, wind speed at turbine, etc). Note: Informal request made to David Michaud (March 2, 2015), redirected to Stephen Bly (March 9, 2015), and ultimately rejected by Stephen Bly (March 24, 2015)

  • Moira West

    Misophonia and hyperacusis are very real. I have had several instance where the flight or fight response has been triggered and believe me it is no fun. My life is severely restricted because of noise and vibration.

  • Norm Matchett

    We all complain about the sounds we can but it is the sound (vibrations) we cannot hear that cause the damage.. The builders of wind mills should to talk to the aircraft industry, Infra sound crystalizes metals and other materials… What were the trumpets that destroyed the walls of Jerico.. A French group , {1960s} developed a Infrasound generator it was an American group developed how to focus it.. We now have a tool….. And a weapon.. Dont believe?? Feel your body vibrate when some twit has the base on the stereo turned right downnorm

  • Rainer Bögle

    Some of the activations show in the fMRI results figure are in the posterior Insula, which might indicate that they did stimulate the sacculus and possibility the utriculus in the vestibular part of the inner ear.
    This is even more likely given that they use very very loud/intense sine waves (if I remember correctly it was up to 120dB).
    This kind of stimulation is also used for clinical tests of Vestibular Evoked Myogenic Potentials (VEMP), eg see

    Probably not worth connecting this to wind turbines, unless you fit one into a room and feed a tube out of that room directly into your ear, and then it will probably still not be loud/intense enough.

    They picked the wrong direction for their abstract, they should try to aim at vestibular research, because it is difficult to make a good stimulation of the inner ear by sound and their infrasound might be interesting for that kind of research, but not applicable to wind turbine health hazard analysis.

    P.S.: I am pretty sure this is not emotion related activation either.

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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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