This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

3Sep/10

A different take on Tourette’s

(warning - graphic language)

I came across this interesting blog post today that discusses the nature of Tourette's syndrome and provides some compelling evidence that there may be much more to it than we had initially assumed.

Tourette's might be described as a dysfunction of self-control.  It's generally characterized by the presence of behavioral or linguistic "tics" or outbursts.  An example of this might be someone swearing uncontrollably at random intervals, in a seemingly arbitrary and inappropriate manner.  In these cases, the individual literally cannot help themselves, so you can see how this might be a problem for some folks.

Check out the above video for an interesting piece about a camp for children with Tourette's - it gives some good background and describes what life is like with Tourette's.  (but beware the bad language).

There are a lot of theories surrounding Tourette's syndrome, but it seems like some of the most well-accepted suggest that Tourette's is a linguistic muscle control phenomemon - that the tics that it causes in people are a result of a brief loss of control of the facial muscles.

However, what happens when you discover a person with Tourette's that can't speak?  That's just what one group of researchers did, and they found some pretty interesting results.  The study describes a 29-year old man who has been deaf from birth.  He also has Tourette's syndrome, and the resulting combination of the two is a set of "tics" that doesn't involve speaking at all - it involves signing.

That's right, this gentleman would explode into outbursts of profane sign language, sometimes making inappropriate sexual references around women or spelling out cursewords, but all with his hands.

Such a finding casts doubt on the theories of Tourette's that are based purely on linguistic problems.   Since this man had no ability to speak and was using his hands, there were very different pathways being activated in his brain compared with the more common verbal Tourette's patients.

What the authors concluded from this was that Tourette's must be operating at a level higher than just linguistic production.  They suggest that the disorder was not causing inopportune muscle spasms, but explosions in subordinacy or a kind of disrupting tendency.  In this way, Tourette's could be viewed not as a fault of language control, but as an uncontrollable urge to disrupt the current situation and reject authority.

I'm not sure whether there isn't a whole lot more that we have to learn about Tourette's, but this man certainly adds an interesting puzzle piece to our collection.  Just goes to show how much of what we don't know might simply be walking amongst us, waiting to be discovered.

via Movement Disorders (but you need an account, so here's another blog post about it)

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  1. Can you cite your source about the deaf guy with tourette syndrome? I would like to read more about that.


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