Psychogenic diseases, formerly known as 'hysterical' illnesses, can have many severe symptoms such as painful cramps or paralysis but without any physical explanation. However, new research from the University of Cambridge and UCL (University College London) suggests that individuals with psychogenic disease, that is to say physical illness that stems from emotional or mental stresses, do have brains that function differently. The research was published today, 25 February, in the journal Brain.
Psychogenic diseases may look very similar to illnesses caused by damage to nerves, the brain or the muscles, or similar to genetic diseases of the nervous system. However, unlike organic diseases, psychogenic diseases do not have any apparent physical cause, making them difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat.
"The processes leading to these disorders are poorly understood, complex and highly variable. As a result, treatments are also complex, often lengthy and in many cases there is poor recovery. In order to improve treatment of these disorders, it is important to first understand the underlying mechanism," said Dr James Rowe from the University of Cambridge.
The study looked at people with either psychogenic or organic dystonia, as well as healthy people with no dystonia. Both types of dystonia caused painful and disabling muscle contractions affecting the leg. The organic patient group had a gene mutation (the DYT1 gene) that caused their dystonia. The psychogenic patients had the symptoms of dystonia but did not have any physical explanation for the disease, even after extensive investigations.
The scientists performed PET brain scans on the volunteers at UCL, to measure the blood flow and brain activity of both of the groups, and healthy volunteers. The participants were scanned with three different foot positions: resting, moving their foot, and holding their leg in a dystonic position. The electrical activity of the leg muscles was measured at the same time to determine which muscles were engaged during the scans.
The researchers found that the brain function of individuals with the psychogenic illness was not normal. The changes were, however, very different from the brains of individuals with the organic (genetic) disease.
Dr Anette Schrag, from UCL, said: "Finding abnormalities of brain function that are very different from those in the organic form of dystonia opens up a way for researchers to learn how psychological factors can, by changing brain function, lead to physical problems."
Dr Rowe added: "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."
Additionally, the researchers found that one part of the brain previously thought to indicate psychogenic disease is unreliable: abnormal activity of the prefrontal cortex was thought to be the hallmark of psychogenic diseases. In this study, the scientists showed that this abnormality is not unique to psychogenic disease, since activity was also present in the patients with the genetic cause of dystonia when they tried to move their foot.
Dr Arpan Mehta, from the University of Cambridge, said: "It is interesting that, despite the differences, both types of patient had one thing in common - a problem at the front of the brain. This area controls attention to our movements and although the abnormality is not unique to psychogenic dystonia, it is part of the problem."
This type of illness is very common. Dr Schrag said: "One in six patients that see a neurologist has a psychogenic illness. 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. We are hopeful that these results might help doctors and patients understand the mechanism leading to this disorder, and guide better treatments."
For additional information please contact:Genevieve Maul, Office of Communications, University of Cambridge
2. The Wellcome Trust is a global charitable foundation dedicated to achieving extraordinary improvements in human and animal health. It supports the brightest minds in biomedical research and the medical humanities. The Trust's breadth of support includes public engagement, education and the application of research to improve health. It is independent of both political and commercial interests. www.wellcome.ac.uk
3. About UCL (University College London)
Founded in 1826, UCL was the first English university established after Oxford and Cambridge, the first to admit students regardless of race, class, religion or gender and the first to provide systematic teaching of law, architecture and medicine.
We are among the world's top universities, as reflected by our performance in a range of international rankings and tables. According to the Thomson Scientific Citation Index, UCL is the second most highly cited European university and the 15th most highly cited in the world.
UCL has nearly 25,000 students from 150 countries and more than 9,000 employees, of whom one third are from outside the UK. The university is based in Bloomsbury in the heart of London, but also has two international campuses – UCL Australia and UCL Qatar. Our annual income is more than £800 million.
Win-win strategies for climate and food security
02.10.2017 | International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)
The personality factor: How to foster the sharing of research data
06.09.2017 | ZBW – Leibniz-Informationszentrum Wirtschaft
University of Maryland researchers contribute to historic detection of gravitational waves and light created by event
On August 17, 2017, at 12:41:04 UTC, scientists made the first direct observation of a merger between two neutron stars--the dense, collapsed cores that remain...
Seven new papers describe the first-ever detection of light from a gravitational wave source. The event, caused by two neutron stars colliding and merging together, was dubbed GW170817 because it sent ripples through space-time that reached Earth on 2017 August 17. Around the world, hundreds of excited astronomers mobilized quickly and were able to observe the event using numerous telescopes, providing a wealth of new data.
Previous detections of gravitational waves have all involved the merger of two black holes, a feat that won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics earlier this month....
Material defects in end products can quickly result in failures in many areas of industry, and have a massive impact on the safe use of their products. This is why, in the field of quality assurance, intelligent, nondestructive sensor systems play a key role. They allow testing components and parts in a rapid and cost-efficient manner without destroying the actual product or changing its surface. Experts from the Fraunhofer IZFP in Saarbrücken will be presenting two exhibits at the Blechexpo in Stuttgart from 7–10 November 2017 that allow fast, reliable, and automated characterization of materials and detection of defects (Hall 5, Booth 5306).
When quality testing uses time-consuming destructive test methods, it can result in enormous costs due to damaging or destroying the products. And given that...
Using a new cooling technique MPQ scientists succeed at observing collisions in a dense beam of cold and slow dipolar molecules.
How do chemical reactions proceed at extremely low temperatures? The answer requires the investigation of molecular samples that are cold, dense, and slow at...
Scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, using high precision laser spectroscopy of atomic hydrogen, confirm the surprisingly small value of the proton radius determined from muonic hydrogen.
It was one of the breakthroughs of the year 2010: Laser spectroscopy of muonic hydrogen resulted in a value for the proton charge radius that was significantly...
17.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
10.10.2017 | Event News
19.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
19.10.2017 | Materials Sciences
19.10.2017 | Physics and Astronomy