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Research links 'hysterical' illness to brain abnormalities

Written by: QMI Agency
Feb. 26, 2013


Not just 'all in their heads'

A new study has found that people with psychogenic diseases — formerly known as 'hysterical' illness because they have severe symptoms with no physical explanation — have abnormalities in the brain that might help explain the phenomenon.

On the surface, psychogenic diseases look like brain, muscle or nerve damage, or genetic nervous system disease. But upon closer inspection, there is no apparent physical cause. Even though patients are often in severe pain, doctors have trouble treating them.

New University of Cambridge research suggests there might be a physical marker for the phenomenon — even if it is all in their heads, so to speak.

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The study looked at people with either psychogenic or organic dystonia, which causes painful and disabling muscle contractions in the leg.

PET scans on psychogenic patients revealed abnormal changes in brain function when asked to put their bad legs in different positions.

"What struck me was just how very different the abnormal brain function was in patients with the genetic and the psychogenic dystonia. Even more striking was that the differences were there all the time, whether the patients were resting or trying to move," said lead author James Rowe in a university press release.

Co-author Dr. Anette Schrag said she hopes findings will help doctors learn to treat psychogenic patients, who she says make up one in six people who visit a neurologist.

"They are as ill as someone with organic disease, but with a different cause and different treatment needs. Understanding these disorders, diagnosing them early and finding the right treatment are all clearly very important."

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