Neurological disorders are a range of conditions that can affect the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and nerves. These disorders can be debilitating and life-altering, with symptoms that can affect a person’s movement, sensation, and cognitive ability.
While some neurological disorders, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, are well-known and commonly discussed, there are many rare and horrifying neurological disorders that few people are aware of. From the rare and debilitating to just plain horrifying, these disorders are as fascinating as they are devastating.
10 Alice in Wonderland Syndrome (AIWS)
Also known as Todd’s Syndrome, this rare neurological condition is named after the book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, in which the main character, Alice, experiences many surreal changes in size. The disorder is characterized by perceptual distortions such as changes in body image, size, shape, and color of objects.
People with the syndrome may experience micropsia, in which objects appear smaller than they actually are, or macropsia, where objects appear larger than they are in reality. They may also perceive sounds as louder or quieter than they are and experience distortions in time perception.
The exact cause of the syndrome is unknown, but it’s believed to be linked to a variety of factors, including migraines, epilepsy, infections such as infectious mononucleosis, and the use of hallucinogenic drugs. This condition can affect people of all ages, but it is more common in children. According to some available research, up to 30% of teenagers may experience brief episodes of AIWS symptoms. However, more research is needed to confirm this and to determine the reasons behind it.
AIWS is not extensively studied because it is typically a temporary condition. Many of the underlying causes of AIWS are also short-lived, which leads to brief episodes of the symptoms. In fact, between 1955 and 2016, only a small number of cases (less than 200) were severe and prolonged enough to require direct medical attention.
9 Cotard’s Syndrome
Cotard’s syndrome is a rare mental illness characterized by the delusional belief that one is dead, does not exist, or has lost one’s internal organs or blood. It is named after Jules Cotard, a French neurologist who first described the condition in the 1880s.
Symptoms of Cotard’s syndrome may vary from person to person, but some common symptoms include depression, anxiety, self-neglect, delusions, and hallucinations. Some people with Cotard’s syndrome may even deny the existence of God or the devil. In severe cases, individuals with Cotard’s syndrome may refuse to eat or drink, believing that they do not need sustenance since they are already dead.
The exact cause of Cotard’s syndrome is still not fully understood, but some researchers believe it may be caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Possible causes include brain damage, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and drug abuse.
Since Cotard’s can be caused by various conditions, there’s no universal treatment for all cases. Some treatments that have shown promising results include; antipsychotic medications, antidepressants, psychotherapy, and even electroconvulsive therapy.
8 Foreign Accent Syndrome
FAS is a rare speech disorder that causes a person’s speech to sound as if they have an accent from another country. While that may not sound all that horrifying, the disorder can be caused by a variety of frightening, life-altering factors such as stroke, brain injury, or neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis. Beyond the most obvious symptom of FAS, the development of a foreign accent, other symptoms can include difficulty with speaking and pronouncing words, changes in intonation and rhythm, and difficulty with word choice and grammar.
Since its first report in the 1940s, there have only been about 100 known cases of FAS. The most famous case involved a Norwegian woman who was hit by shrapnel in World War II. As a result, she developed a German accent. Another case involved a woman from Devon, United Kingdom, who acquired a Chinese accent after experiencing a migraine and a British woman who, after suffering from a stroke, began speaking with a French accent.
7 Alien Hand Syndrome
Alien Hand Syndrome (AHS) is a rare neurological disorder that affects limb movement control. It’s also known as anarchic hand or Dr. Strangelove syndrome. Individuals with AHS experience involuntary movements of one of their hands, which seems to have a mind of its own. The symptoms of AHS can vary from person to person.
In most cases, the affected hand will perform actions that are opposite to the person’s intentions. For example, the hand may reach out to touch something the person wants to avoid. The hand may also undo buttons or zippers or even hit the person’s face. In some cases, the affected hand may have a tendency to grab objects and hold them tightly, making it difficult for the person to release them.
AHS is caused by damage to the brain, usually resulting from surgery or injury. This damage can affect the communication between different parts of the brain that control limb movements. In some cases, AHS may be associated with other neurological disorders, such as epilepsy or dementia.
In one disturbing case, a 77-year-old woman reported that while sitting and watching TV, she suddenly noticed her left hand moving on its own. She couldn’t control it and stated that it kept moving for almost 30 minutes, even stroking her face and hair.
6 Mirror-Touch Synesthesia
Mirror-Touch Synesthesia is a fascinating neurological condition that researchers have been studying more in recent years. It belongs to the family of synesthesia, which is a condition where the stimulation of one sense can lead to the stimulation of another sense.
In the case of Mirror-Touch Synesthesia, individuals can experience the same sensation as another person, even if they are not physically being touched. For example, seeing someone else being touched or feeling a sensation can trigger a physical sensation in the person with the condition, such as a tickling or tingling sensation. The intensity and duration of this condition can vary, with some individuals experiencing brief sensations and others experiencing more prolonged ones.
There is some research questioning whether individuals with MTS synesthesia are more empathetic than those without the condition. Several studies have shown that individuals with MTS may exhibit enhanced empathy, leading to more selfless behavior. Furthermore, 2018 research indicates that MTS can enhance emotional reactivity and improve the capacity to recognize emotions.
Prosopagnosia, commonly known as face blindness, is a rare neurological disorder that impairs a person’s ability to recognize faces. The condition can be caused by brain damage or may be present from birth. Damage to the brain’s fusiform gyrus, responsible for facial recognition, is the most common cause of prosopagnosia. However, some people are born with the condition, which is believed to be caused by a genetic mutation.
Individuals with prosopagnosia can still see and perceive facial features, but they are unable to connect them to a specific person. They may also experience difficulty remembering the faces of people they have met before, even if they have known them for a long time. Some people with prosopagnosia may also struggle with recognizing other objects, such as cars or buildings.
Experts don’t have a clear understanding of the exact prevalence of prosopagnosia. Some studies suggest that up to 2.5% of individuals have congenital prosopagnosia (also known as developmental prosopagnosia) to some degree.
4 Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva
Fibrodysplasia Ossificans Progressiva (FOP) is a rare genetic disorder that affects approximately 1 in two million people worldwide. Also known as “stone man syndrome,” FOP is characterized by the progressive formation of bone in muscles, tendons, and ligaments, leading to restricted movement and, eventually, complete immobility.
The disorder is caused by a mutation in the ACVR1 gene, which provides instructions for creating a protein that is involved in the development and maintenance of bones and other tissues. The mutation causes the protein to become overactive, leading to the formation of extra bone in the soft tissues of the body. Unfortunately, there is no known cure, and treatment options are quite limited.
Frighteningly, according to a recent study, there is a high rate of misdiagnosis across the globe, with incorrect diagnoses accounting for approximately 90% of cases. This alarming statistic is compounded by the fact that a staggering 67% of patients undergo invasive diagnostic procedures that may actually do more harm than good.
One can imagine the physical and emotional toll this takes on patients, who may endure prolonged suffering and may even be subjected to unnecessary treatments.
3 Kleine-Levin Syndrome
Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS), also known as Sleeping Beauty Syndrome, is a rare neurological disorder that affects about one to two cases per million, primarily adolescents and young adults. Its symptoms include recurrent episodes of excessive sleep, altered behavior, and cognitive disturbances.
During these episodes, individuals may sleep up to 20 hours a day, with a decreased need for food and water. Other symptoms of KLS may include altered behavior, such as impulsivity, irritability, and hypersexuality, as well as cognitive disturbances, such as confusion, disorientation, and memory loss.
KLS affects people for a short period, typically lasting from a week to a couple of months. During the periods between episodes, the person does not exhibit any symptoms. The causes of KLS are unknown, and there is no cure for it. The person may experience several episodes every few weeks or months, and KLS can last for ten years or more before resolving on its own.
During episodes, approximately 50% of patients exhibited symptoms consistent with hypersexuality. These symptoms were more prevalent in men than in women. In males, symptoms included increased or overt masturbation, exposing oneself, using obscene language, fondling genitalia, and making unwanted sexual advances.
In some cases, these inappropriate sexual advances included assaulting female nursing staff, female visitors, the patient’s sisters, daughters, or other female relatives, and in three of them, another man. In addition to sexual compulsions, some patients also compulsively began singing, body rocking, chewing lips, writing on walls, stripping down wallpaper, and desiring to set fire to things.
Pathological joking is a condition known as Witzelsucht, characterized by excessively telling pointless or inappropriate jokes. The word is derived from the German words for joke, “witz,” and addiction, “sucht.” A 2016 study conducted by California doctors Elias Granadillo and Mario Mendez explored the condition. The study documented two cases, including a 69-year-old man who experienced a personality change and began compulsively making jokes after suffering a brain bleed ten years prior.
He also exhibited behavior such as a fixation on recycling and making borderline offensive comments. During an interview, the patient reported feeling happy but also expressed concern about his compulsive need to make jokes. Despite the humorous nature of the interview, the patient acknowledged that his behavior had become an issue with his wife. He would often wake her up in the middle of the night to tell jokes.
In an interview with a second patient, a 57-year-old man stated that he began exhibiting erratic behavior three years prior to the study. He developed a habit of telling childish jokes and laughing uncontrollably at his own comments. Additionally, he showed a lack of inhibition and purchased almost two dozen Hawaiian shirts. He also went six weeks without bathing. The patient’s medical history was unremarkable, and he had mostly normal results from a neurologic examination.
However, he deteriorated in cognition and developed Parkinsonism, eventually passing away more than a decade later. According to the authors of the 2016 study, the pathological humor exhibited by two patients was associated with damage to the bifrontal regions of their brains. A significant commonality between the patients (and an ironically funny one at that) was that they found their own jokes hilarious but failed to find other people’s jokes amusing.
1 Jerusalem Syndrome
Jerusalem syndrome is a set of mental phenomena triggered by a visit to Jerusalem, which involves religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions, or other experiences that resemble psychosis. It has affected individuals from various religious backgrounds, including Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
Jerusalem syndrome was more common in the past, with around 50 cases per year, leading to the establishment of a psychiatric hospital in Jerusalem as the designated treatment center for affected tourists, primarily Christians. Reported cases of the condition increased leading up to the millennium. However, in a 2011 interview, a hospital psychiatrist stated that they only saw two or three cases per year.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, a curious incident occurred involving a man from the Midwest who was found wandering around in a white robe, claiming to be the Apostle Paul. This individual was apprehended by the police and taken to a local mental health clinic after attempting to force observant Jews and Muslims to follow his beliefs and ways.
Another famous case involved a man who believed he was John the Baptist and was found wandering naked in the desert, attempting to baptize people he came across before being apprehended by local police. Most patients who experience this break from reality are Christian pilgrims who are deeply religious. They tend to be Protestants rather than Catholics and come from rural areas. Typically middle-aged, inexperienced travelers.
In addition, this is often their first trip abroad, and they have an idealized image of Jerusalem from years of studying the Bible. These patients cannot reconcile their expectations with reality, leading to a short-term mental breakdown.