In which I am a stereotypical scientist because my first response is “Neat!”

5 Feb

Apparently there’s been a story making the rounds lately, about a dozen junior high and high school girls in New York with what is being diagnosed as conversion disorder, a psychological disorder that manifests itself in tics and other motor or sensory symptoms, for which you would normally expect a biological (rather than psychological) interpretation. The disorder on display in New York doesn’t appear to be traditionally contagious, or caused by environmental factors. Naturally, this makes people a little nervous.

Being a firm if somewhat facetious believer in House’s definition of “idiopathic” — “from the Latin meaning we’re idiots ’cause we can’t figure out what’s causing it” — I was skeptical. But the school district, department of health, and related agencies have conducted what appears to be a pretty thorough check on all the other possible causes, as seen in this report. Some of the highlights (what, you don’t want to read an 8-page scientific report in your spare time?) follow:

  • The 12 cases have nothing in common save for their school, which has been checked for environmental factors that could have caused the symptoms, and their gender.
  • 1 of the 12 cases had a preexisting diagnosis of Tourette’s syndrome, and 2 other cases had earlier diagnoses of other illnesses associated with tics.
  • The cases have been dispersed and ongoing over the past seven months.
  • The time course of the cases indicates that it was NOT (repeat: was NOT) linked with Gardisil or any other vaccination.
  • Of the 12 cases, 8 were examined by a pediatric neurologist. All 8 of those cases had experienced “significant life stressors.” (This one seems to be the big blinking red lights sign, at least from my point of view.)
Now this may come as some surprise, but I’ve always been a bit of a nerd. In the eighth grade, I was really into the Salem witch trials. I wrote a research paper on it, or as much of a research paper as an eighth-grader could write before the advent of Wikipedia. There were notecards and everything. So my first thought when reading the news story was: Mass hysteria.
Hysteria patients under hypnosis

From Wikipedia on hysteria: "In the Western world, until the seventeenth century, hysteria referred to a medical condition thought to be particular to women and... supposedly caused by the movement of a woman's uterus to various locations within her body." Can you tell why I'm a fan of modern medicine?

It turns out that conversion disorder is, essentially, a less sexist, more modern way of describing what used to be called mass hysteria. Usually caused by a significant amount of stress, and much more likely to strike females than males, conversion disorder currently does not have a clear biological cause, and, as such, lacks evidence-based treatment outside of therapy.

The mind and body (here dualism is convenient if uncomfortable) interact in many ways, some more subtle than others. Intuitively, it seems strange not to have a clear biological cause, especially for something that, at first glance, appeared to be “spreading” between the students. But the key factor here does appear to be stress, which we tend to think of as a purely mental state, but which has very real physical effects on the body, especially when maintained over a long period of time.

This is a really interesting case, and, while I don’t expect any simple biological explanation will be found any time soon, there doesn’t seem to be any immediate danger to those affected, except for the unfortunate disruption to their lives, which should hopefully be mended by therapy and understanding.

And I think it’s promising that no one’s been accused of witchcraft at this time.

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One Response to “In which I am a stereotypical scientist because my first response is “Neat!””

  1. lavacita February 5, 2012 at 7:16 pm #

    “No one has been accused of witchcraft at this time.” Love it! What an interesting read.

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