Nodding syndrome, a disease that has sickened more than a thousand children in northern Uganda since the summer, is named for its most distinctive symptom: involuntary, at times violent bobbing of the head, like someone repeatedly nodding yes or snapping out of a doze. Outbreaks of nodding syndrome cropped up in South Sudan this summer, in the same region of Uganda two years ago, in southern Sudan—not yet an independent nation—in 2001, and periodically in remote mountain villages in Tanzania. Nearly half a century has passed since the first reported case, but epidemiologists still have only a rudimentary understanding of this mysterious disease. They’ve found few hints as to what might cause it, and no effective treatments.
It’s tough enough to play Dr. House with a living, breathing patient who’s right there in the room. It’s quite another thing to diagnose across distance and time. Yet some scientists find it irresistible to peek into the history books with the benefit of modern medical knowledge and try to crack the cases of historical figures who died too young. Was metal-nosed astronomer Tycho Brahe poisoned, for instance? And what caused Mozart’s demise? (It wasn’t Salieri.)
This week, researchers turn their detective eyes to the famed romantic composer Frederic Chopin, who left behind a wealth of lovely piano compositions when he died at 39 in 1849. Writing in Medical Humanities, a specialized edition of the British Medical Journal, Spanish scientists led by Manuel Varquez Caruncho argue that there’s an explanation for Chopin’s health woes and momentary hallucinations that his 19th century doctors and subsequent investigations overlooked: The composer had a particular type of epilepsy.
Chopin’s tendency to lapse out of consciousness was interpreted by his partner George Sand, pseudonym of the French novelist Aurore Dudevant, as “the manifestation of a genius full of sentiment and expression.” But in the analysis published this week, Spanish doctors say Chopin’s hallucinations may have been due to a temporal lobe epilepsy rather than the result of any sweeping artistic tendencies. [AP]