This Neurological Disease Kept People Sleeping for 40 Years

by Moin Uddin Ahmed Tipu

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.

#oliversacks #encephalitislethargica #awakenings #neurology #dopamine #human #physiology #seeker #humanseries

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Oliver Sacks

“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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Leave a Comment


Osmosis Jones April 30, 2021 - 7:58 PM

Did you know the retina used more energy off having to activate bipolar calls that then 9ff neuron in the retina . Isn't I thought those neuron only fired when activated

V S April 30, 2021 - 8:21 PM

Oliver Sacks’ history is so fascinating! Also, I wonder if L-Dopa has the same issue with drug resistance in Parkinson’s patients. My grandad takes L-Dopa, and seems to be working wonders for him.

Dian Heffernan April 30, 2021 - 8:25 PM

Guess its pictures kept will remind us..sad,ta oxymoron of it ALL

Justin Reschke April 30, 2021 - 8:31 PM

Just let me sleep. I don't want to wake up as an decrepit elderly person.

André Ferreira April 30, 2021 - 9:05 PM

On top of that, he was fine, huh

Stephen Nielsen April 30, 2021 - 9:09 PM

Encephalitis lethargica swept over the world beginning in 1917 -18. This parallels the 1917 – 18 Spanish flu pandemic.
Serious question: Is it possible that encephalitis lethargica was caused by the same virus as the flu?

Edit – did a little reference work. Turns out they’re probably not related and that the encephalitis might be the result of population wide lowered immunity after the flu

hasan sourav April 30, 2021 - 9:25 PM

So, people like " Rip Van Winkle " really exist in real life. :3

R B April 30, 2021 - 9:31 PM

I think they are still sleeping!.

Patrick Kelly April 30, 2021 - 10:05 PM

Host and writer here, this was a super fun one to make. I’ve had Awakenings on my shelf for a while, so it was a treat to dive into its history and science! Hope you liked it!

Sue G April 30, 2021 - 10:20 PM

Excellent movie too.

dragnaut 01 April 30, 2021 - 10:29 PM

Conclusion, nothing new is happening?

teitake April 30, 2021 - 10:52 PM

So how did he secured informed consent from patients who weren't conscious?

AG. April 30, 2021 - 11:03 PM

High my gentle giant your punch also can put people to sleep.

Rahat Faraz April 30, 2021 - 11:08 PM

What a great work he has done.

JAGA Sparow April 30, 2021 - 11:31 PM

Great episode!

Stanimir Borov3 May 1, 2021 - 12:16 AM

u2 vertigo.mp3

Evan Nibbe May 1, 2021 - 1:26 AM

Just to think, writing a story about your patients would now be completely illegal!

mike ross May 1, 2021 - 2:23 AM

"I'd be more apathetic if I weren't so lethargic" – family guy

User Name May 1, 2021 - 2:23 AM

Mysterious neurological disease appears out of nowhere in between ww1 and ww2, around the same time that north america was conducting immoral human experiments on their own citizens.

Ello Mello May 1, 2021 - 3:19 AM


AmpliSci May 1, 2021 - 7:11 AM

It's so cool how Oliver Sacks described his patients with such detail and humanity.

Danny Jaramillo May 1, 2021 - 8:49 AM

No one’s gonna mention the highlighter skills?

Michael Caspi May 1, 2021 - 12:17 PM

awsome refresh insight thanks a lot

Gamaliel Lysander Cabria May 1, 2021 - 1:07 PM

This is caused by Morpheus, Dream, being caught by pesky mortals.

Hoptanglish Alive May 1, 2021 - 1:37 PM

Could encephalitis lethargica be related to resignation syndrome that affects refugee children in Sweden, explored by the documentary Life Overtakes Me?

Targeted Victim May 1, 2021 - 4:11 PM

I am being attacked by dutch psychopaths by operant conditioning. They will never stop. But I don't care about them because they are evil and belong in jail for taking my human rights. They have been torturing me for 3 years. They torture and monitor me 24/7. They belong in jail.

Chef Pizza May 1, 2021 - 4:28 PM

That’s why coffee was invented

Sandra Viknander May 1, 2021 - 5:33 PM

Damn, it’s nice to hear that at least one of medicines most empathetic doctors also practised in a time where we mostly hear about cruelty in the field.

some randomgal May 1, 2021 - 6:17 PM

Dr. Sac‘s approach here is a very well needed qualitative approach and research of the disease. It strikes me as insane to see research as only doing quantitative statistics work there. While it may be true that quantitative work helps finding an overall objective result, it unfortunately also ignores the individual case by case differences and influences. And to determine these you need qualitative research to find a clear result. Overall you need both the quantitative and the qualitative approaches to research to find reliable and usable results and to conclude more from for the future.

Christian Terrill May 1, 2021 - 8:00 PM

Was that last guy the show writing his name wearing a wind up beanie or was it a umicka?

Dr_b_ May 1, 2021 - 8:37 PM

He missed a key ingredient in the therapeutic regime, LSD

purpl3grape studios May 1, 2021 - 10:16 PM

Like trying to stay awake for an important 9 am meeting. And your eyes lids just want to give in to collapse.

brainbah May 1, 2021 - 10:28 PM

So the arrogance of "professionals" caused pain and suffering in patients, breaching the hippocratic oath

hannah davis May 2, 2021 - 5:19 AM

i saw the title and immediately knew it was encephalitis lethargica after watching Awakenings with robin williams and robert deniro 🙂

J. Xochimitl May 2, 2021 - 11:46 AM

I don't know one person, in or outside the medical community, who refers to dopamine as a happiness chemical, rather than a neurotransmitter.