Science

Rare Syndrome Mysteriously Affecting Teens

This is 16-year-old Lori Brownell. As you can see in the videos below, Lori is very sick. Her symptoms started last August. Nobody could diagnose her at the time, and since then 17 more kids have developed the same symptoms in the same geographical area.

On Christmas Eve, doctors finally determined that Lori had developed Tourette syndrome, a sickness that causes involuntary physical and vocal tics, and, in a minority of cases, swearing. What nobody knows yet is why this syndrome is spreading so quickly and in such a small community.

The rest of the kids are showing the same symptoms as Lori. Most of the 17 teenagers affected by this syndrome — all girls except one boy — go to LeRoy High School, in Genesee County, New York. The other two girls are from Corinth, in Saratoga County, about 80km away. It’s unclear yet if there is any connection between these two groups.

Some doctors believe that all of the teens have conversion disorder, a neurosis that affects motor functions. People used to call this hysteria. Conversion disorder’s symptoms may include fits, numbness, blindness and paralysis. Psychiatrists believe this disorder happens because of difficulties in the patient’s life, not because of any external pathogen or chemical substance.

But that may not be it. Lori has already been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, not conversion disorder, and no root cause has been identified that might cause such a widespread neurosis. James Dupont, whose daughter has presented the same Tourette syndrome symptoms as Lori, says he can’t believe there is no physical cause: “These girls are getting sick like crazy up there. We got four new cases over the weekend.”

Tourette syndrome, on the other hand, brings symptoms like the ones that Lori shows on her videos: uncontrollable twitches in both her muscles and speech. This causes tics in her arms and head, as well as forcing her to make noises through her nose and mouth. Tourette can also include coprolalia — literally, faeces talk, the compulsion to swear uncontrollably — but this is rare and doesn’t seem to be affecting Lori and the rest of the kids.

Obviously, Tourette syndrome is a condition that can seriously affect the life of the patient. Lori hasn’t been able to go back to school. Every time she goes out, people keep staring at her. And if she tries to hold the twitching, it keeps building up until it comes out in a violent explosion, causing her pain. Fortunately, it seems to wane with time, as adolescents go into adulthood. It never fades away completely, however, according to scientific studies.

There’s no clear cause for Tourette syndrome, but scientists believe that children can develop it because of both genetic and environmental factors. In the case of these kids, nobody has been able to find a solid common link yet between all the cases. The only nexus is the fact that some of the girls are in the same softball team, which toured the area last year. According to the local media, Alycia Nicholson — one of Lori’s friends on that team — is experiencing the same symptoms.

This is why the National Institutes of Health is planning to start an investigation. Even the famous Erin Brockovich — popularised by Julia Roberts in the eponymous movie — is now involved in the case. She has sent a team of scientists to collect soil samples around LeRoy High School, even while the school board says they have “ruled out” the possibility of infections or chemical poisoning.

Whatever it is, here’s hoping they find something soon. I hope you all get well soon, Lori and everyone else affected by this horrible sickness. [WYNT, Rochester Homepage, National Institute of Neurological Disorders, US National Library of Medicine]

December 18, Lori developed a new twitch on the way to the see the doctor.

December 24, the day she was diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome.

Product Finder

Find more great products at