By now you have probably heard of the middle and high school children in LeRoy, NY who have come down with what some reports are calling a “mystery” illness. Of course it is almost obligatory to note in such stories that doctors or experts are “baffled.” There are several features of this story that are interesting from a science-based medicine and also just a critical thinking point of view – the media response, how such ailments are diagnosed, the publicity around a private medical condition, and the speculation from many camps that appears ideologically motivated.
To first review the facts of the case, there are now 15 children affected with involuntary tics, which are sudden “jerk-like” motor movements. They all attend the same junior-senior high school and so range in age from 12-18, with onset of symptoms from October to January of the current school year. All but one of them are girls. All of the children have been examined by pediatric neurologists, 12 of the 15 at the Dent neurological institute by the same two neurologists, including Dr. Lazlo Mechtler.
Dr. Mechtler, and in fact all of the pediatric neurologists who have examined any of the children, have come to the same diagnosis: conversion disorder and mass psychogenic illness. A conversion disorder occurs when psychological stress manifests as physical symptoms. We take this for granted to some degree – when people feel anxious they may get sweaty, nauseated, short of breath, and have palpitations. People with panic attacks can have these symptoms and also difficulty swallowing, and episodes that may resemble certain types of seizures with feelings of being separate from reality or from themselves. These are physical symptoms resulting from pure emotional stress. But in some cases psychological stress can also lead to neurological symptoms – pretty much any neurological symptoms, such as weakness, difficulty speaking, loss of vision, and involuntary movements.