10 Weird Neurological Disorders, Conditions and Symptoms
All kinds of diseases can be unpleasant, even scary, but an especially problematic situation is when some disease affects the brain. Our brain is the precious organ where all our character traits and intellectual abilities reside, and if it is damaged, the personality of the individual concerned may change in ways that his/her close ones find very disturbing. If you are unfortunate enough to have a parent or other older relative who has Alzheimer's, you probably have first-hand experience of this. Another problem with brain disorders is that they are often associated with denial, i.e. lack of insight about one's own condition. A person with brain damage may stubbornly insist that he/she is completely healthy and does not need help, even if severely disabled. This is somewhat similar to the denial seen in addictive disorders such as alcoholism. In fact, there now exists a lot of evidence that addiction should be viewed as one kind of disease of the brain.
1 Lethal Catatonia
It is controversial whether this condition is a disorder of the psyche or of the brain, but nonetheless, lethal catatonia (also called malignant catatonia) has significance as it is one of the few mental conditions that can actually kill you. It usually occurs in people with severe depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but can also be a result of some kind of organic brain damage or inflammation in the brain. (LINK 1, 2) A person with lethal catatonia usually initially becomes either unresponsive, mute and immobile with muscle rigidity, or over-excited and agitated. This is followed by a gradual rise of body temperature (the muscle tension or restless activity converts calories to heat energy faster than the body can remove heat by sweating), and possible death from overexhaustion and dehydration. Fortunately, some patients can be "woken up" from this state with an injection of lorazepam or other tranquilizers, and many others can be effectively treated with ECT, electroconvulsive therapy (LINK 3). Traditional antipsychotics, such as haloperidol, don't necessarily help, and in some cases they can even cause a syndrome similar to lethal catatonia, called neuroleptic malignant syndrome. (LINK 4)
2 Savant Syndrome
Most of us have seen the 1988 movie "Rain Man" where the protagonist's autistic brother has weird special skills, including mental calculation with large numbers, and the ability to count cards in a blackjack table (LINK 5). This kind of people actually exist, and can have a large variety of skills, ranging from exceptional artistic talent to an unfailing sense of direction (mental compass) (LINK 6, 7). The idea of someone being a genius in one narrow area of life, in contrast with being obviously mentally challenged in all other areas, was fascinating enough to be Hollywood material. Savantism usually occurs secondary to disorders of the autistic spectrum, but in some cases people can develop savant abilities following traumatic brain injury (LINK 8). One famous person with such acquired savantism, Jason Padgett, developed unusual mathematical and artistic genius after getting a concussion in a bar fight (LINK 9), and many examples of his artwork can be found online. There have also been some claims that temporary savant-like skills can be induced with magnetic stimulation of the brain, which can even be done noninvasively from the outside of the skull (LINK 10).
3 Neglect Syndrome
Many people have heard the fact that damage to one hemisphere of the brain often causes disabilities that affect the opposite side of the body. For example, a blood clot in the left hemisphere can cause paralysis of the right arm or leg (LINK 11). A particularly striking example of this is the neglect syndrome, in which someone categorically ignores either the right, or more commonly, the left side of absolutely everything. When these people are shown a picture and are asked to draw a copy of it, they only recreate one half of the original image, and either completely ignore the other half or draw it with very crude detail. In severe cases,
patients may only shave half of their face or eat food from only one half of a plate put in front of them in the dinner table. (LINK 12) Depending on its severity, neglect syndrome can cause various levels of disability, which has to be assessed by a multidisciplinary team of specialists. Needless to say, it usually makes one unable to drive a car or motorbike safely (LINK 13).
4 Frontal Disinhibition Syndrome
When we hear the term "higher mental functions", the first things that usually come to mind are the abilities that make us different from animals - abstract thinking, morality, self-criticism, etc. The so-called frontal disinhibition syndrome, sometimes caused by a tumor or mechanical trauma to the frontal lobe of the brain, sometimes by early-onset dementia, is a remarkable disorder as it often leaves other higher mental functions intact but severely affects the person's ability to behave in a civilized manner (LINK 14). People who have this disorder may use harsh language, tell obscene jokes in inappropriate situations, and possibly even urinate or defecate in public if they feel the need to (LINK 15,16). In one infamous case that even got some media attention, a previously normal man became a pedophile after a tumor damaged the frontal areas of his brain, and was eventually caught collecting child pornography and abusing young children. (LINK 17). To make things worse, these people often have poor insight and don't recognize the abnormality of their disinhibited behavior. Their mood state is often euphoric and they are usually less concerned about their condition than the people around them are. (LINK 18).
5 Temporal Lobe Epilepsy
How did Vincent van Gogh get his artistic inspiration? Did he use some kind of psychedelic drugs? Well, actually he did often use copious amounts of absinthe, a strong alcoholic drink spiced with wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), but another likely explanation is related to a form of epilepsy he allegedly had, temporal epilepsy (LINK 19, 20). Unlike more familiar grand mal epileptic seizures, epileptic activity in the temporal lobe doesn't usually cause convulsions or loss of consciousness, but rather involves hallucinations, mood changes, dissociative symptoms (e.g. deja vu or jamais vu), and other effects that appear similar to religious trance states or the effects of hallucinogens. Many historical religious figures who have claimed mystical experiences (such as union with God), as well as some famous artists and writers, may have actually had this form of epilepsy. (LINK 21). Unfortunately, temporal seizures are not always a particularly pleasant experience. More importantly, they also destroy a lot of brain cells, and these people often suffer gradual mental deterioration and memory loss if not successfully treated (LINK 22).
6 Anton-Babinski Syndrome
Vision is the most important sense humans use in everyday life. Losing one's eyesight is a very unpleasant thing by itself, but how about becoming totally blind and not understanding there's anything wrong with you? This is what happens in some cases of cortical blindness, damage to those sensory areas of the brain that process visual information. (LINK 23) These people deny there's anything wrong with their eyesight, and don't understand that they need help in their daily activities. If they are shown something, e.g. a photograph, and are asked to tell what they see, they can make up detailed confabulated descriptions of the shown object to replace the missing visual information. It is very possible that these people have actually forgotten completely what it means to really SEE something, and therefore they don't notice anything unusual in their condition. However, according to one research paper published in Japan (LINK 24), some of these patients eventually develop insight and admit their blindness, which probably makes it easier for the medical personnel and other caregivers to help them. This disorder is a particularly striking example of how people with abnormal brain function are able to deny even most obvious facts.
Every person has a mental image of themselves and their appearance, usually mostly realistic (healthy people) but occasionally somehow distorted (e.g. anorexics see themselves as fat even when underweight (LINK 25)). Autoscopy is a rare neurological symptom where someone literally constantly sees a hallucinated image of how they think they look like,viewing it from an out of body perspective (LINK 26). The affected person may or may not find this perception scary, and usually understands that it is hallucinatory. (LINK 27) This symptom is usually associated with epileptic seizures (possibly of the temporal type already discussed), but can also be caused by a purely psychological disturbance or even simple stress and tiredness (LINK 27, 28). Myths of out of body experiences belong in the same category with UFO abduction stories as some of the skeptic's favorite things to debunk with rational arguments, and the study of the neural basis of autoscopy phenomenon probably gives them more hard evidence to do that. However, contemporary neural science still falls badly short from explaining everything, and there are a lot of mysteries left, giving us room for imagination.
8 Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome
Ever seen someone who's suffering from end-stage alcoholism? Not a pretty sight. People who have been drinking on a daily basis for years often have damage to several organs, including the brain, liver and pancreas. One of the nastiest consequences of heavy drinking is actually not caused by the direct toxic effect of ethanol, but rather by the lack of proper eating habits that often accompanies it. Drinkers often have a chronic vitamin B1 (thiamine) deficiency, and in worst cases, this can cause Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a severe brain disorder characterized by confusion and memory loss. People with this disorder often have memory lapses and typically attempt to fill the holes in their recollection with confabulated (made-up) stories. You may note the similarity of this behavior to how the people with earlier mentioned cortical blindness confabulate visual information they don't have. In addition to the loss of memory, people with WKS often have ataxia (poor motor coordination) which may look similar to drunkenness even when they don't have any alcohol in their system. (LINK 29)
Because of the risk of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, hospitalized alcoholics are always first given a precautionary injection of vitamin B1, before any other intravenous nutrition is administered (LINK 30). Sometimes it has even been proposed that thiamine should be routinely used as an additive in alcoholic beverages to reduce the incidence of WKS (LINK 31), but there have been concerns that such means could be seen as a message to the public that heavy alcohol abuse is "acceptable".
9 Congenital Analgesia
Living beings on our planet are the result of almost 4 billion years of evolution (LINK 32), which has optimized our ability to survive in hostile environments. One important ability which is necessary for survival is nociception, or ability to sense when something is causing you physical damage. In everyday language, we just call it the sense of pain (LINK 33). Some rare people have a genetic mutation which makes them totally insensitive to pain. This is called congenital analgesia. Such people can break bones, burn themselves with hot objects when cooking or otherwise hurt themself badly without noticing it, and usually need special care,especially in their childhood (LINK 34).
Recently, it has become possible to produce genetically modified laboratory mice that lack nociception, just like the human patients with congenital analgesia. This can be done by disabling a gene that codes a certain ion channel protein which is meant to transport sodium ions across cell membranes. Interestingly, this modification also seems to make the animals unable to recognize smells, and they are not attracted by the odor of food like normal mice (LINK 35).
It is ironical that the pharmaceutical industry is still struggling to develop a side-effect free medication that can remove the sense of pain temporarily. Habit-forming opioid analgesics such as morphine, which has been used for thousands of years, are still the only effective method to relieve severe pain without blocking all sensation like local or general anesthetics do. Possibly, new research related to the ion channels that are abnormal in congenital analgesia could lead to development of better pain medications. (LINK 36)
10 Status Epilepticus
A more extreme version of a normal epileptic seizure, the epileptic status is a life-threatening condition where successive grand mal-type seizures follow each other without the person regaining consciousness in between them. If not quickly treated, this condition can cause permanent neural damage from too much electrical activity in the brain (excitotoxicity), or even death from overexhaustion due to the prolonged muscle cramps (the mechanism of lethality is probably similar to how lethal catatonia, discussed in the first item of this list, causes death). The first treatment that is usually tried is an injection of benzodiazepine, and if this doesn't work, the patient may have to be put under general anesthesia until the abnormal brain activity causing the seizing stops. (LINK 37, 38)
Recovery from a prolonged status epilepticus can be slow, and the patient may need rehabilitation to return to normal daily functioning. Fast treatment can usually prevent permanent damage, therefore it is important in health education classes to teach people how to recognize an epileptic seizure.