The small New York town of LeRoy has had its fair share of news coverage lately following the unexplained "twitching disorder" of several residents. Since October, 16 people — 14 of them teenage girls — have been struck with uncontrollable physical and verbal tics. And no, it's not Tourette's, which isn't contagious. There are two major conflicting opinions: either the patients' twitching is psychosomatic, or it's the result of environmental factors.
Doctors looking into the LeRoy cases are more firmly on the side of a psychological explanation. Today's New York Post article reiterates the "conversion disorder" diagnosis. The headline ("Doctors say it's all in their heads") may read inflammatory to some, but it points to a conclusion more and more medical professionals have reached.
The National Institute of Health, state health officials and the four neurologists who preceded Mechtler as the diagnosing physician have all concluded that what's happening to the girls of Le Roy is what happened to the fevered victims of the Dancing Plague of 1518: A mass psychogenic illness (more commonly known as "mass hysteria") brought on by conversion disorder — so named because the patient's brain and body has converted acute psychological stress into a physical manifestation.
Naturally, parents of the twitching teens are skeptical: to some, this diagnosis reads as, "They're faking it." But it's not nearly so simple. The "conversion disorder" theory suggests that these girls (along with one boy and a 36-year-old woman) are physically manifesting their psychological symptoms. There is nothing wrong with LeRoy's air or water — comforting news to the rest of the town, but not to the people who can't stop shaking.
As for what initially caused the twitching, that's more difficult to deduce. Doctors have suggested boredom and stress, the latter of which seems to be the more popular explanation. Medical professionals are also quick to note that, despite the psychological root, the girls can't simply will their tics away.
But why now? "Mass hysteria" like the Dancing Plague of 1518 isn't something we see much of these days. The Post offers a theory as to the origin of this particular conversion disorder, and why contemporary technology may explain the sudden spread of twitching in LeRoy.
Conversion disorders often start with a Patient Zero who herself has been exposed to someone actually suffering from a disorder. In Le Roy, as it happens, a girl who graduated last year did have Tourette's. All it takes is one girl who's vulnerable to conversion disorder for the symptoms to spread. Add YouTube and Facebook and the macabre narcissism that often accompanies illness, and you have a rapidly cycling feedback loop.
In some ways, then, this psychological condition could be contagious — but instead of being airborne, it's passed around through the internet and the rapid spread of misinformation and fear. As such, the teen twitching epidemic may be our first meme-based illness.