About 100 years ago, over a million people contracted a mysterious disease called encephalitis lethargica that left people in a sleepy state for decades. A breakthrough would finally come years later when a neurologist named Oliver Sacks took an unconventional approach to his patients.
This episode is made possible thanks to HHMI Tangled Bank Studios.
Oliver Sacks: His Own Life is available to stream on PBS for a limited time:
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In the decade after World War One, over a million people contracted a mysterious neurological disease called encephalitis lethargica. Sometimes, patients would experience headaches, fever, vertigo, or trouble sleeping but then make a full recovery. Others became comatose and died. And still others afflicted with the disease slipped into a sleepy, almost comatose state that they never recovered from. They presented with paralysis of the eye muscles, double vision, and sometimes lost control of their facial muscles, rendering them expressionless. But no two cases were the same, and doctors never figured out what caused the disease or any good treatment options.
The epidemic hit its peak in the 1920s and left up to half a million people dead. But a number of patients survived in the sleepy state for decades. Then thirty years later in the 1950s, researchers made a breakthrough into the body’s production of the chemical dopamine—sometimes known as the happiness chemical. Dopamine treatment was thought to be a miracle cure for Parkinson’s disease, and an unconventional and empathetic neurologist named Oliver Sacks wondered if it could also help the forgotten encephalitis lethargica patients, bringing them back into the world after decades in their sleepy states.
You may have heard of Oliver Sacks before, but let me tell you, this dude was cool. He rode motorcycles with the Hells Angels and was a competitive weightlifter who at one point squatted 600 pounds! But more than anything, he was a misfit in the medical community – and it was his approach as a clinician that set him apart.
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“In the late 1960s, Sacks met a group of patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in New York’s Bronx who had contracted sleeping sickness just after World War 1. He treated them with the experimental drug L-DOPA and watched as they “awakened” from a frozen state that had lasted decades. His book Awakenings described the events and was later adapted into a play and a film.”
100 Years Later: The Lessons Of Encephalitis Lethargica
“In 1917, at the height of the Great War, a new and mysterious disease emerged into the world, before vanishing a few years later. Although it was to prove less destructive than the 1918 influenza pandemic which occurred at around the same time, the new outbreak had a persistent legacy: some of the victims of the disease remained disabled decades later.”
The fading trail of the sleepy wraith
“Encephalitis lethargica was an enigma throughout its one and only epidemic. All those who have concerned themselves with this disease have been impressed, above all, by its strangeness — no fiction author would have had the temerity to invent a disorder of such incredible clinical diversity and puzzling behavior — and then the mystery was deepened, and its solution perhaps rendered inaccessible, by its unexpected disappearance.”
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