Camille was smart, attractive, and loved her job. Theoretically she had everything going for her—except for an embarrassing and humiliating condition. She smelled like dead fish. This had been a problem since she was a child, when her classmates made fun of how she smelled, and a teacher questioned her hygiene. The odor continued to plague her into adulthood, and people at work complained about it. She hit her lowest point when she was a teacher and her students started calling her “Ms. Fishy.” What’s worse, Camille’s nose doesn’t pick up the scent, so she doesn’t know when the odor intensifies. Eventually she discovered that she suffers from a bizarre metabolic disorder called trimethylaminuria (TMAU), in which the body secretes excessive amounts of the chemical trimethylamine, which produces the noxious odor. Although there is continuing research on the topic, the condition is quite rare (only 600 documented cases in the U.S.), so still not much is known about it. There is no cure, only management of symptoms. When Camille got in touch with an organization for people with TMAU, she learned she was not alone. She also learned of some steps to take to minimize the intensity of the odor, such as dietary changes, taking chlorophyll, and showering frequently. But for now she and other people with this condition continue to struggle with its effects. And TMAU is just one of a number of bizarre conditions that have scientists more than a little puzzled.
If you thought pica was just a unit of measurement, think again. Pica is described by the National Eating Disorder Association as “an eating disorder that involves eating items that are not typically thought of as food and that do not contain significant nutritional value.” Pregnant women are at a higher risk for developing pica disorder. Instead of craving pickles and ice cream, pica sufferers will crave things like pebbles, soil, soap, and charcoal. In one extremely bizarre pica case, a woman ingested furniture polish up to three times a day. Sometimes pica is triggered by a mineral deficiency, but there is usually no underlying cause for the disorder.
Fatal Familial Insomnia
Sonia Vallabh watched her mother struggle to fall asleep for over a year. Eventually, Vallabh’s mother existed in a sort of trance state, somewhere between being fully awake and asleep. She suffered from the rare genetic disorder fatal familial insomnia (FFI), and Vallabh also carries the gene. Vallabh doesn’t know when she’ll start developing symptoms. In a race against the clock, she currently researches FFI in hopes of finding a cure. FFI causes progressive, debilitating insomnia. It is such a rare disorder that there are only 28 family bloodlines in the entire world with the genetic markers for FFI. Once diagnosed with FFI, patients typically succumb to the disease in a year or less. Vallabh’s mother passed away just months after she began to show symptoms of the disorder. Current research is hopeful, although there is no cure for the sleeplessness that plagues FFI sufferers.
Six-year-old Jacob Russell was rushed to the emergency room multiple times when his hands and feet began turning purple for no apparent reason. Mysteriously, by the time doctors would examine Jacob, his extremities had returned to their normal color. Jacob also experienced allergy symptoms such as hives in the dead of winter, not exactly peak allergy season. Finally, the Russells found out that Jacob suffered from from cold urticaria, or an allergy to the cold. Just like allergies to pollen or peanuts, symptoms of cold urticaria range from normal itchy skin and minor swelling to life-threatening anaphylaxis. In Jacob’s case, temperatures under 50 degrees trigger symptoms. To combat his symptoms, he no longer drinks cold beverages, and his family relocated to Florida for the warmer temperatures. Unlike seasonal allergies, it’s hard to treat an allergy to cold weather, so treatment focuses on managing symptoms instead. Fortunately, most patients fare quite well after diagnosis by staying away from anything that triggers their symptoms.
Exploding Head Syndrome
Most people drift off to dreamland peacefully, but people with exploding head syndrome (EHS) hear explosive noises when they fall asleep or wake up. These noises aren’t associated with pain but can sound like a July 4th fireworks display to those who suffer from the disorder. The first time you experience EHS can be disorienting, as the noise sounds incredibly real, but it is only happening inside your own head. There are many theories about why people suffer from EHS. Some scientists believe EHS is brought on by extreme stress or inner ear issues. Serious cases of EHS have seen improvement with treatment of antidepressants and calcium channel blockers.
Gluten intolerance can cause digestive issues, brain fog, and anemia. But gluten intolerance can also cause one unusual side effect: psychosis. One woman started having unexplained delusions and was finally admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where treatment had little effect. Doctors finally suspected the woman had celiac disease but did not connect gluten intolerance to her psychotic break. When the woman was again hospitalized, she was put on a gluten-free diet, and her symptoms improved dramatically. The relationship between gluten and neurological conditions is still a mystery. When a person suffers from celiac disease, the body views gluten as an invader. It’s thought that the body’s inflammatory response to gluten can travel to the brain, causing a whole range of neurological disorders.
Alien Hand Syndrome
Extraterrestrials do not actually come and take over the body of someone suffering from alien hand syndrome (AHS), but it’s pretty close. For those who have AHS, the hand has a life of its own, not unlike Thing from The Addams Family. AHS actions are totally involuntary and usually take the person suffering from the disorder by surprise. AHS can occur after certain neurological procedures. Patients do see some improvement in hand control with Botox injections and nerve blocks, although there is no cure for the disorder.
Staff at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy, are accustomed to tourists experiencing panic attack–like symptoms upon viewing the beautiful works of art in the gallery. These attacks were first recognized by Marie-Henri Beyle in 1817, when he had such a flush of emotions when viewing art in Florence that he fainted. Beyle, who wrote under the pen name Stendhal, experienced these attacks several times when in the presence of great beauty, thus the syndrome that bears his name today. Stendhal syndrome is a psychosomatic disorder in which people quite literally have an “art attack.” When viewing scenes of concentrated beauty—as in an art museum—people with Stendhal syndrome experience a wide range of symptoms, including anxiety, heart palpitations, fainting, and even hallucinations. Upon suffering an attack, people with Stendhal syndrome typically recover quickly. Because the syndrome is brought on by what an individual considers to be beautiful, no two triggers are the same.
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
“Curiouser and curiouser!” Alice (of Wonderland fame) exclaims after she falls down the rabbit hole. While Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a work of fiction, the rare neurological disorder of the same name is very real. People with Alice in Wonderland syndrome have the illusion that they’ve gotten smaller or larger than the environments where they are. Anyone can develop Alice in Wonderland syndrome, but people who experience migraines are believed to be more susceptible. Fortunately the syndrome doesn’t persist for long and isn’t associated with lasting side effects.
As a child, Glenn Alperin was unable to tell his brothers apart. He struggled at school to recognize teachers and classmates. Sometimes Alperin even has trouble recognizing his own reflection in the mirror. He has a rare condition known as face blindness, or prosopagnosia. Because of his condition, almost everyone Alperin meets is a total stranger to him. People with prosopagnosia “simply fail to develop normal face processing abilities despite normal intellectual and perceptual functions,” according to the Centre for Face Processing Disorders. There is no cure for face blindness, but it is believed that up to 2 percent of the population could have this disorder. Most patients are able to develop ways of coping with the condition, though. For example, patients might ask loved ones to wear certain identifiable scents or the same hairstyle and clothing.
Foreign Accent Syndrome
Karen Butler went to the dentist for a routine surgery. When she woke up, she no longer spoke with her Midwestern accent. Now Butler speaks with an indeterminate accent that’s vaguely Transylvanian. Her daughter thinks she sounds like a mild-mannered vampire. Her dentist thought she was just having a hard time coming out of the anesthesia. When the accent persisted long after the drugs wore off, Butler sought medical advice. It might sound silly, but Butler has the very real, very rare foreign accent syndrome. Foreign accent syndrome is a neurological disorder that usually arises as the result of a brain injury. The first recorded case of the disorder was in 1941, when a Norwegian woman was hit in the head with a piece of shrapnel and woke from surgery with a German accent. In the years since, there have only been around 100 reported cases. This benign condition can last for years, and in many cases, patients never revert back to their former accents. As for Karen Butler, she embraces her new way of speaking, although she feels that the accent has softened a bit over time. Still, she’ll happily oblige when someone asks her to talk like Dracula.