Doctors say twitching epidemic is all in their heads

Taking women back to the Dark Ages… giant step at a time.

17 teen girls hit in twitching epidemic — but doctors say it’s all in their heads

February 12, 2012

Lori Brownell

In the summer of 1518, in Strasbourg, France, a woman known as Frau Troffea suddenly began dancing in the middle of a street. Her mortified husband commanded her to stop, but she didn’t, or couldn’t, and within seven days, Frau Troffea was joined by 34 more villagers. By the end of the month, 400 townspeople were frenzied with dance, unable to stop even for sleep, and some of them died from stroke, heart attack, broken ribs, or literal exhaustion.

“The Dancing Plague” remains a medical mystery. Some believe the outbreak was caused by ergotism, a hallucinogenic illness that can result from eating moldy bread. Chorea, a disorder of the nervous system that presents much like epilepsy, is another possibility.

But historian John Waller, author of “A Time to Dance, a Time to Die: The Extraordinary Story of the Dancing Plague of 1518,” notes that city council records at the time support the phenomenon as something deliberately undertaken — that the “plague” was psychological rather than biological.

“These people were not just trembling, shaking or convulsing,” Waller has said. “Although they were entranced, their arms and legs were moving as if they were purposefully dancing.”

ALL SHOOK UP: Upstate teenager Lori Brownell tells of her mysterious affliction — even capturing her Tourette’s-like tics and spasms — in videos she posted to YouTube.

This past December, Lori Brownell posted her first video to YouTube. She titled it “Twitching/passing out-1st video!” Brownell, who is 16, has shoulder-length auburn hair and almond eyes rimmed in kohl eyeliner. On camera, Brownell details her recent history of passing out at homecoming, trouble sleeping, seizures, and the sudden, strange onset of Tourette’s-like twitching and vocal tics, which include chimp-like breathing sounds.

“This is not easy to control,” Brownell says. “When I do this” — and here her left arm and hand flutter around her face as her head bobs about — “there’s this weird feeling that goes up and down my spine. And if I try to stop twitching, then it just builds up and comes out much stronger, so I try not to do to that. I try to let it come out.” Brownell then bursts into tiny applause. “That’s another thing I do a lot, clap,” she says. “I also blink a lot.”

Brownell lives near Albany, a five-hour drive from the tiny upstate hamlet of Le Roy. Last fall, her softball team traveled to play against Le Roy Jr./Sr. HS, and since October, 19 people, mainly Le Roy residents, have reported the same disabling symptoms of Tourette’s syndrome.

Aside from one 36-year-old woman and one teen boy, all of the victims have been teen girls, and almost all of them attend Le Roy Jr./Sr. HS, which has a student body of less than 400. Compounding the oddity: Tourette’s syndrome affects only between .4 percent and 3.8 percent of children between the ages of 5 and 18, with boys affected more than girls by a ratio of 4 to 3 and with symptoms actually lessening throughout adolescence.


Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.