Misconception 4: People with Tourette’s are incapacitated by their symptoms. Many individuals with Tourette’s function successfully in society. Mort Doran, a Canadian surgeon with Tourette’s, manages to suppress his tics while in the operating room; he is also an amateur pilot. Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote of a jazz drummer who reported that his Tourette’s disorder enhanced his musical performances by imbuing them with energy. Indeed, some have argued that Tourette’s can be a blessing rather than a curse, perhaps in part because the condition forces people to learn impulse-control skills that few of us acquire. This claim is intriguing but anecdotal. Former National Basketball Association point guard Chris Jackson, who changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, said that his Tourette’s made him focus with laserlike precision on his shooting. He twice led the league in free-throw percentage; during one stretch of play in 1993, he made 81 consecutive free throws.
Hope for Tourette’s Sufferers
There is no known cure for Tourette’s, but several treatment options exist. Medications such as Haldol (generic name haloperidol) and Orap (generic name pimozide), which block the action of the chemical messenger dopamine, have been found in studies to be effective in reducing the frequency and intensity of tics. Other promising medications are clonidine, which doubles as a blood pressure drug, and botulinum toxin, better known as Botox. Clonidine inhibits the chemical messenger norepinephrine, which some researchers have argued is implicated in Tourette’s. Although Botox’s mechanisms of action on Tourette’s are unknown, it appears to work by blocking body processes that are involved in facial tics or movement.
Preliminary evidence suggests that some behavioral therapies, especially habit reversal, can be helpful for Tourette’s disorder; it is not known whether combining these techniques with medication yields an additive benefit. Habit reversal teaches patients to become aware of the premonitory urges preceding tics and to learn and practice muscular actions incompatible with their tics. For example, a patient who repeatedly jerks his arm violently toward others might be taught to direct his arm slowly toward his head, culminating in touching his hair gently. This approach and others are not panaceas, but they can help some Tourette’s patients to bring their more troubling symptoms under better control.
Tourette’s through History
Some writers have argued that several famous historical figures, including Roman emperor Claudius (of I, Claudius fame) and author Samuel Johnson, may have had Tourette’s disorder. Others have speculated that composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had Tourette’s, although the evidence here is more circumstantial, consisting mostly of suggestions that Mozart was prone to profanity and to hyperactivity, a symptom that commonly occurs with Tourette’s.
Psychiatrist Arthur K. Shapiro and psychologist Elaine Shapiro of Cornell University conjectured that the troubled girl who formed the basis for the 1971 book and 1973 blockbuster film The Exorcist had Tourette’s disorder. Some observers, they contend, misinterpreted her head jerking, grunting and profane language as hallmarks of demonic possession.
This article was originally published with the title What Do We Know about Tourette's?.