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

By Veronique Greenwood | February 6, 2012 4:18 pm

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 American reports should be back in two weeks. The NIH, meanwhile, has invited the afflicted teenagers to come be examined in Bethesda, Md.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • John Lerch

    Has anyone checked sleep quality? I get tics when I have poor sleep. In my case, it isn’t clear which comes first–the tics or the poor sleep. But still they should have checked.

  • Stephen O’Connor

    Where’s Dr House when you need him?!

  • lymie

    I agree! Where’s DR. House when we need him! Not even joking! I’m wondering if they’ve been tested for lymes disease? (not the government “approved” testing either it’s fallible and returns more false negatives than I’d like to mention! What’s even worse is these girls may not have even had a tick bite to contract but their mothers could have lyme disease! Just a thought ya’ll
    Conversion order my @ss!

  • Michelle M

    Mass hysteria.

  • http://www.thewritersclinic.com Jean Gogolin

    Does anyone else wonder whether whatever is causing this phenomenon also caused the hysteria (a word I hate, since its root is the same as that for the uterus) that led to the Salem, Massachusetts witchcraft trials of 1692?

    Thank God the result this time will not be the same.

  • JCHarris

    @Jean Gogolin: I think (my memory could be wrong) that the Salem incident has been put down to having started with ergot poisoning combined with psychological stresses? I.e., The first girls started acting weird from the fungus in their wheat, it was attributed to witchcraft, then it spread to other girls as “mass hysteria.”

    Again, I could be way off on that sequence of events, and am probably way simplifying it (esp. since I’ve got that too-lazy-to-go-search thing going on).

    @John Lerch: Weird! I get tics (hands, arms, legs jerk; also “brain zaps”) when I’m overtired, too. And they do look like the girls’ physical symptoms to some extent.

  • http://www.profi-fachuebersetzungen.de Übersetzung

    I get tics when I have poor sleep. In my case, it isn’t clear which comes first–the tics or the poor sleep. But still they should have checked.

  • Kate Hammer

    According to what I have read, with the two exceptions noted above (1 boy and 1-36 year old woman,) all affected have been girls. Has anyone looked into certain products that may have been used by this sampling of individuals ? (I.e. Tampons, birth control pills, other medication, flu shots, etc.). It would seem it could potentially be a ‘batch’ of something (some product or food?) that may have caused the impact (something that would serve as a common denominator among this group of people). Possibly a combination of something ? Has there been a thorough investigation with respect to foods eaten, and/or mess taken and where the supply may have come from ? I would think There must be some common denominator between this group of people.

  • TRP

    I’ve seen the “tics” exhibited by some of these girls on TV and they do not look like the bona fide tics that Tourette’s patients show. Basically, they jerk around but lack the exaggerated movement, loss of control that Tourette’s patients have.

  • http://yahoo bella

    I think they are totally faking it. All girls within the same age group, going to the same school? All the attention? Like it was suggested, Magallen’s Disease. Totally psychosomatic. I saw them on TV. It is mass hysteria. I hate that word too. They all looked alike . I just don’t buy it. That girl that kept making the sign of the cross was just too much.

  • Tony Mach

    Two kids in Genesee county (Michigan) have developed similiar symptoms. They say they were in LeRoy in summer.

    My money would be on pathogen.

    And asking Dr. House? Doesn’t he only diagnose what is known? OK, granted, sometimes he diagnoses things that aren’t firmly established yet – but still. (And apart from that: Isn’t he a fictional character?) So why not ask a real virus hunter instead, that he takes a look, and sees if there is an pathogen we might not know about? Someone like Dr. Lipkin? He could refute or confirm a possible pathogen connection.


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