Few neurological disorders are as widely known and misunderstood as Tourette syndrome.
Few neurological disorders are as widely known and misunderstood as Tourette syndrome. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimates that 200,000 Americans suffer from a severe form of the condition, with symptoms ranging from twitching to involuntary swearing. The cause of these behaviors remains as much of a mystery today as it did to the condition’s namesake, Georges Albert Édouard Gilles de la Tourette, in the late 19th century.
Tourette was born into a family of doctors on October 30, 1857 near Loudun, France. A driven young man, he entered medical school at age 16. After graduating in 1881, he moved to Paris, where he secured an internship with France’s leading neurologist, Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot, whose students would also include Sigmund Freud, was an expert anatomist who had devoted his career to devising a systematic classification of nervous system disorders, from hysteria to multiple sclerosis.
In 1884, Charcot asked Tourette to examine a series of “startle” disorders recently observed in Malaysia, Siberia, and the United States. In each of these cases, victims reacted to an unexpected sound or touch, either by crying out in pain or flailing violently. In some cases, patients would automatically repeat words that were spoken to them or obey commands, even those that might cause bodily harm. After examining all available literature on these conditions, Tourette concluded they were all suffering from the same nervous affliction. He argued that this malady also explained the behavior of a recently deceased noblewoman named Marquise de Dampierre, who was notorious for her inexplicable outbursts of profanity. After further investigation, he found patients in Charcot’s clinic exhibiting similar symptoms, most notably a fifteen-year-old boy who exhibited “extreme hyperexcitability, with particular tics,” including convulsive muscle movements followed by swearing.
Tourette published his findings in 1885 and soon Charcot started referring to “la maladie des tics de Gilles de la Tourette.” Despite his mentor’s support, however, Tourette found himself under attack from other physicians, who wondered whether these symptoms really constituted a new disorder. It was also unclear whether physiological or psychological factors were responsible for the observed behaviors. Debates over these questions continued for decades. Only after the success of tic-suppressing drugs in the 1960s did the medical community recognize Tourette’s syndrome as distinct from other purely psychological conditions.
The arguments surrounding his research did not stop Tourette’s neurological research. His reputation, as well as his health, declined sharply in 1893 after he was shot in the neck by a woman who claimed to have been hypnotized by one of his colleagues. (Tourette and Charcot had previously insisted that hypnotized people could not commit crimes.) Fortunately, Tourette recovered from the injury and by the turn of the century, his professional standing was strong enough for him to be nominated as Chief Medical Officer to the 1900 Paris Exhibition. After his death in 1904, his colleagues would remember Tourette as a loyal friend and insightful researcher, even as the medical community continued to ponder the roots of the syndrome that bore his name.