10 strange health disorders
Alien hand syndrome (aka Dr. Strangeglove syndrome)
Imagine if one of your hands had a mind of its own, unbuttoning your shirt without your conscious control, as if possessed. Such is the case with alien hand syndrome, a rare condition usually seen after a stroke. “It occurs when two areas of the brain are damaged and become disconnected from the normal neural network that is activated during voluntary movement,” says Anthony P. Geraci, a New York neurologist. The alien hand may knock food out of the mouth placed there by the normal limb and unbutton clothes that the normal limb just buttoned. No known treatment exists aside from giving the alien hand something to grasp, keeping it busy and unable to perform unwanted movements, says Geraci.
Foreign accent syndrome
Suffering a head injury that results in a person speaking with a foreign accent is extremely rare (approximately 60 cases have been reported since 1907) -- but can happen. “Foreign accent syndrome usually occurs after a stroke or traumatic brain injury,” says Geraci. A disruption of the language system of the brain, particularly the cerebellum in the back of the head, is believed to be the cause. The cerebellum controls the fluidity and ‘accent’ of speech, explains Geraci. “Persons affected cannot speak another language but simply have an interrupted speech pattern that is interpreted by the listener as a foreign or regional accent.” Treatment involves resolving the underlying cause.
Mary Hart epilepsy
In the early 1990s, a 45-year old woman was written up in the New England Journal of Medicine for suffering seizures upon hearing the voice of Mary Hart, the co-host of “Entertainment Tonight.” The woman experienced mental confusion, gastric distress and seizures when she listened to a videotape of the show. “Better known as ‘reflex epilepsy,’ this type of epilepsy can occur from anything, ranging from flashing lights to a certain type of music or song -- or a person’s voice,” says physician Cynthia Harden, director of the comprehensive epilepsy care center at North Shore-LIJ's Cushing Neuroscience Institute in Manhasset, N.Y. Typically, people with reflex epilepsy suffer seizures spontaneously, as well as when triggered by the voice or music, and can be treated successfully with anti-seizure medication.
Body integrity identity disorder
In this psychiatric disorder, sometimes referred to as “amputee identity disorder,” the person believes a part of their body -- usually an arm, leg or finger -- does not belong to them and they’d feel better without it. “These individuals are insistent that the body part be amputated; some self-mutilate when doctors refuse,” says neurologist Geraci. One website for people with body integrity identity disorder on the Internet currently lists more than 1,400 subscribers, although Geraci says the disorder is still extremely uncommon. “There is no known treatment other than psychotherapy to try to determine if an underlying psychological trauma is manifesting as the disorder,” Geraci says.
Spontaneous human combustion
A body bursting into flames on an operating table or at home without any apparent source of ignition, or “spontaneous human combustion,” has been reported for hundreds of years. “It appears mysterious and weird, but there really is no such thing,” says Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Radford, Va., who is also a forensic scientist and former Maryland police officer. “Reports of these mysterious fires can always be traced to a natural explanation, be it a cigarette or item of clothing catching fire.” In an operating room, chemicals such as alcohol sparked by static electricity may cause a fire; during autopsies gases can be released that can cause a small explosion, says Burke. “Otherwise, I don’t have an explanation.”
People with neglect syndrome act as if parts of their world do not exist. “It’s a not-uncommon brain disorder that appears after a stroke,” says neurologist Geraci. Of the 700,000 strokes that occur in the United States each year, at least 10 percent experience some type of neglect. Neglect syndrome occurs when a damaged part of the brain is no longer able to acknowledge space or a limb. “Visual neglect” can occur, for example, if a person has a stroke in the left visual cortex (brain); they may have neglect on the right side of space. “In other words, everything to the right of their midline does not exist,” says Geraci. “If you place a plate of food in front of such a person, they would eat everything on the left, but would leave everything on the right alone.” Most neglect syndromes improve over time without intervention.
The “wolf boys” of circus sideshow fame suffered from this affliction. A genetic condition, hypertrichosis or “werewolf syndrome,” causes excessive growth of body and facial hair. Approximately 34 cases have been documented in the literature since the Middle Ages. “It’s very rare,” says Debra Jaliman, a New York based dermatologist and the author of “Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist” (St. Martin's Press, 2012). “The excess hair is seen at birth.” Aside from genetics, hypertrichosis can also occur as a side effect of a blood pressure medication, minoxidil. Applied directly to the scalp, minoxidil stimulates hair growth in balding men.
If beautiful art literally takes your breath away, you may have Stendhal syndrome. Named after the 19th-century French novelist who first wrote about the disorientation tourists experienced when viewing art masterpieces, symptoms mimic those of a panic attack, says Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist and the author of “A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness” (Morgan-James, 2009). “Symptoms include increased heart rate, dizziness, confusion and sometimes even hallucinations.” The experience usually goes away on its own without long-term effects and does not require treatment other than supportive measures at the time it is experienced, says Lombardo.
A person with synesthesia experiences a “crossover” or “joined sensation” where stimulating one of the senses results in an involuntary experience of another sense. For example, some synesthetes report “tasting” names or they may see certain colors while hearing music. “Most individuals with this condition are not aware that it is not universal until someone makes it known to them,” says Lombardo. “While synesthesia does not have biological effects, it can have certain consequences, depending on the type.” For example, musical abilities can be diminished in people with sound-color synesthesia (sometimes called colored hearing) because they will perceive a sound as a color whenever they hear the sound.