Health

The illnesses caused by a disconnect between brain and mind

A group of troubling disorders lead to very real symptoms, but tests suggest nothing is wrong. Finding out why is shedding new light on the nature of consciousness itself




Health



3 April 2019

AMANDA PAYNE’S seizures weren’t going away, despite taking strong epilepsy drugs. One time she felt the warning signs just before getting off a bus on a busy road in Glasgow. She only just made it to the pavement before collapsing and convulsing.

Payne was sent for further investigations. Like many people with epilepsy, she had been diagnosed based on a history of sudden blackouts, but had never undergone a definitive test to record her brain’s electrical activity during such an episode. This time, she was admitted to hospital where she wore electrodes on her head for four days. By the end the doctors knew one thing: whatever was wrong, it wasn’t epilepsy.

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Despite four years of apparent seizures, her brain was to all appearances working fine. As to the real problem, the doctors had no simple explanation. But they had seen this before.

Payne is one of a group of people with neurological symptoms – those affecting the nervous system – that defy all the usual medical tests. As well as seizures, other manifestations include paralysis, tremor, blindness and pain – but no physical cause can be found. Until recently, those who experienced these disorders were routinely dismissed by medical professionals as attention-seekers and fakers.

In the past decade, though, neurologists have come to understand how real these symptoms are, and how people with them experience injustice and abuse. This shift has led to techniques that help people regain control over their bodies. What’s more, it is shedding light on some puzzling bodily experiences we all may have and …

Article amended on
4 April 2019

Wording in this article has been changed to remove reference to people thinking themselves ill


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