Tourette syndrome (TS) is a neurological disorder that was first diagnosed and described by the French neurologist Dr George Gilles de la Tourette in 1825. Tourette syndrome is characterised by the occurrence of a combination of involuntary physical (motor) and vocal tics (not necessarily simultaneously), nearly every day or intermittently over the course of a year. It tends to develop before the age of 21, and most often around the age of 7. The condition is not life threatening, and is very often so mild that it does not require treatment. It may become worse through adolescence, and sometimes improves with age.
Common examples of motor tics include eye twitching/blinking, facial grimacing, head jerking, shoulder shrugging, jumping, kicking, finger movements, jaw snapping, tooth clicking, frowning and touching people. Vocal tics include throat clearing, hissing, yelping, sniffing, grunting, tongue clicking, uttering words or phrases inappropriately (echoing others, or blurting out obscene words), repeating the same phrase several times.
People with TS often have an IQ equal to their peers. However, the condition is often associated with other behavioural and neurological problems, such as obsessions, compulsive behaviour, autism, hyperactivity and ADHD, impulse control difficulty, sleep disorders, anxiety, depression, restless leg syndrome, heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli and learning difficulties.
What causes Tourette Syndrome?
It is thought that tics are caused by the abnormal metabolising of certain brain neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, which results in inappropriate signals being sent from the brain. Neurotransmitters are natural chemicals that carry a signal from one nerve cell to another at specific spots called receptors. Research indicates that tics are related to dopamine receptors which are supersensitive to dopamine in the basal ganglia the area of the brain involved with movement control and activity. Other studies suggest that tics may be caused by higher than normal levels of dopamine production and use.
Some researchers also claim that TS patients have low levels of serotonin, which has been linked with some of the symptoms of TS, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), depression and sleep disturbances.
There is almost certainly some genetic influence on the development of Tourette syndrome. It is observed to run in families (an individual with TS has a 50% chance of passing the predisposition on to each child); however, there is growing evidence that environmental and dietary factors can play a significant part in aggravating the symptoms. In fact, some diagnosed sufferers claim that they do not actually have Tourette Syndrome, but a collection of allergies which mimic the symptoms of TS. Since diagnosis is made by observation, and the elimination of other possible conditions such as Sydenham's Chorea, this cannot be ruled out. Although there is no comprehensive cure for TS there are many approaches to controlling the symptoms. Most people are treated using a combination of therapy and medication, and, in rare, extreme cases, surgery.
Tourettes Action is a charity working to make life better for those with TS: http://www.tourettes-action.org.uk