Making hysteria history

Making hysteria history

From the New York Times (with thanks to Mickey):

For much of the 20th century, the search for a neurological basis for hysteria was ignored. The growth of the ability to capture images of the brain in action has begun to change that situation.

Functional neuroimaging technologies like single photon emission computerized tomography, or SPECT, and positron emission tomography, or PET, now enable scientists to monitor changes in brain activity. And although the brain mechanisms behind hysterical illness are still not fully understood, new studies have started to bring the mind back into the body, by identifying the physical evidence of one of the most elusive, controversial and enduring illnesses.

Patients with hysterical paralysis have healthy nerves and muscles. Their problem is not structural but functional: something has apparently gone wrong in the higher reaches of the human mind that govern the conception of movement and the will to move.

When the woman tried to move her “paralyzed leg,” her primary motor cortex was not activated as it should have been; instead her right orbitofrontal and right anterior cingulate cortex, parts of the brain that have been associated with action and emotion, were activated. They reasoned that these emotional areas of the brain were responsible for suppressing movement in her paralyzed leg.

This is all rather indirect and speculative. For example, although people are focusing on a problem in the brain one should not be surprised if the underlying abnormality is one of sensory input, despite the nerves appearing to be healthy.

One should also not be surprised if in several years hysteria becomes another non-fatal condition for which we have a gene and an effective intervention

October 2, 2006

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