What's Causing the Bizarre Plague of Tics in Upstate New York?

By Veronique Greenwood
Feb 7, 2012 3:18 AMNov 20, 2019 5:08 AM


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About three months ago, otherwise healthy girls at a high school in LeRoy, NY, started stuttering, jerking, and making odd noises, among other symptoms similar to Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder. The number of people affected has grown now to more than a dozen, though a more specific count is difficult to nail down, and seems to include one boy and one 36-year-old woman in addition to the teenage girls. What could be causing these symptoms? Health officials have inspected the girls' school and found no environmental contaminants. A variety of other causes, including the Gardasil vaccine and strep throat, have been investigated as causes of the uncontrollable tics (neither of those panned out, as in each case only some of the girls had had the shots or been sick). The pattern of cases doesn't suggest an infectious cause. The current best guess comes from a pediatric neurologist who has examined eight of the girls and has given a diagnosis of conversion disorder, which is defined as the development of tics, paralysis, or a variety of other neurology-related symptoms as a result of stress. Conversion disorder can sometimes be controversial, since it traces its roots back to feminine hysteria, a diagnosis first made by Sigmund Freud, and because many scientists think there may be an underlying, though undiscovered, environmental component in some cases of conversion. Nicolas Jackson at The Atlantic's health site provides some good background on the events in LeRoy and lists several times conversion disorder had come up before:

Thirty-one chorus members in Lockport, New York, fell ill around the same time in 2004 and then quickly recovered. Fourteen Florida high school students all developed loud breathing problems at the same time in 2007. Thirty years ago, in 1982, about 100 people in Los Angeles all believed they had contracted food poisoning, but they hadn't. Dozens of factory workers at a plant in West Virginia passed out before a conversion diagnosis was made.

But that doesn't mean the investigation is over. Some of the girls and their parents aren't satisfied with the diagnosis and have gone on national talk shows to tell their stories of the outbreak. Environmental health advocate Erin Brockovich recently came to the town to test for contaminants---the prime candidate apparently being cyanide from a chemical spill that happened decades ago near the school---and last week a doctor specializing in pediatric neuropsychiatric disorders took blood and tissue samples from some of the girls to look for signs of undetected infections (linked to similar outbreaks before), which Scientific Americanreports should be back in two weeks. The NIH, meanwhile, has invited the afflicted teenagers to come be examined in Bethesda, Md.

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