Doctor suggests social media may be cause of a viral twitching disorder

Here and Now

Seventeen teenage girls, a teenage boy and a woman in the small rural community of LeRoy, in western New York, have developed mysterious physical and verbal tics.

Experts say social media may be helping to spread the disorder. A number of the afflicted girls created videos of themselves exhibiting symptoms, and posted them online, asking for help finding a diagnosis. Experts believe susceptible individuals who watch the videos online could also begin to exhibit symptoms.

Dr. David Lichter, a professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, has treated several of the sufferers. He said the disorder may be psychological.

“The underlying symptoms are generated from internal stress, conflict, or anxiety. Then it manifests its physical symptoms without the patient’s conscious awareness,” he said.

Lichter called the affliction “mass hysteria.” He found the majority of individuals affected are women. One possible reason for this, he suggests, is women may internalize stress more than men and may be more sensitive to individuals in their own environment.

“The spread here is not through a virus, bacteria, or an infectious agent. In the past, you’ve had the spread occuring from person to person,” he said. “Nowadays, I think we have the capability of the same kind of spread, through video. If you have stress and conflicts and anxieties of your own, and you see people behaving in a certain way, you may be prone to adopting that same physical symptom.”

Angry parents demanded answers and suggested that the illness could be related to a chemical spill that happened near the school over 40 years ago. However, Lichter dismisses those theories.

“There have been no previous cases where exposure to this particular chemical has resulted in any kind of neurological disorder. You have to ask yourself why it is that only young girls in this particular school have come down with this very circumscribed group of symptoms, and also not other people living in this immediate environment,” he said.

But not everyone agrees.

New Jersey neurologist Dr. Rosario Trifiletti suspects that the cause could be a neuropsychiatric disorder called PANDAS. According to The National Institute of Mental Health, pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder associated with strep infections — also known as PANDAS, is characterized by a dramatic onset of symptoms, including motor or vocal tics, obsessions and/or compulsions.

There are no tests to diagnose PANDAS, but doctors look at five different criteria to reach a diagnosis. The criteria are: the presence of an obsessive compulsive disorder, or tic disorder, occurence of syptoms during childhood or adolescence, having an “episodic course” of symptom severity, being infected with the Strep-A virus, and having neurological abnormalities, like jerky or hyperactive motor movements.

“I can tell you that they are testing positive for, each one is testing positive either for streptococcas or mycoplasma, which are known triggers of the PANDAS/PANS Syndrome,” Trifiletti said to NBC affiliate WGRZ. In his full statement, Trifiletti added, “Thus, a PANDAS-like illness is my working diagnosis, rather than a mass conversion disorder.” 

A “conversion disorder,” Lichter’s diagnosis, is an affliction where the brain is “actually subconsciously mimicking the twitching felt by others,” Discovery reported.

All the patients affected with the disorder have had serious underlying stresses in their lives, which gives them an underlying susceptibility to the disorder, Lichter claims. But he said treatment can be effective.

“You provide psychological support, counseling and therapy. And if there are underlying disorders, like depression or anxiety, you might treat those with medications,” he said. “But the important thing is to make sure that the diagnosis is well understood by the whole family, not just the patient, but the parent.”

Health officials are researching whether environmental factors might be playing a role, but so far tests have all been negative. Parents of the afflicted teenagers have asked an environmental team led by Erin Brockovich to investigate the effects of the chemical spill.

Brockovich was made famous in a movie about her effort to find contamination in a small California town and force a major power company to pay for it. They are testing the area around the school for contamination.

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