Dr Strangelove syndrome discovered in Britain

2000-09-10 17:52

London - British doctors have documented cases of a phenomenon they dub "Dr Strangelove Syndrome", which causes the sufferer to throw up his hand in an embarrassingly involuntary gesture.

They have diagnosed an estimated 40 sufferers of Anarchic Hand Syndrome, to give it its proper medical name. And they behave in a remarkably similar way to the film character, played by Peter Sellers, although there is no suggestion that Sellers based the role on personal knowledge of the condition.

In the film, Dr Strangelove is seen struggling to stop his arm launching itself to salute the Fuehrer. People with Anarchic Hand can also be seen slapping and grabbing their errant hand to stop it misbehaving.

"You might remember the movie Dr Strangelove when Peter Sellers tried to inhibit his Nazi salute. The symptom itself has been nicknamed the Dr Strangelove Syndrome," Sergio Della Sala, an Italian neuropsychologist based at Aberdeen University who has made a special study of Anarchic Hand, said on Thursday.

"The patients are just like Peter Sellers - they slam their hand, and shout æMy hand does what I don't want it to do'. One patient picked up fish bones from a meal and put them in her mouth. Then she was very embarrassed and tried to take them out, and her two hands got into a fight," he said.

He said the problem was caused by an injury to the frontal lobes of the brain, caused by a blow or a stroke. "Fighting hands", where patients literally fight with themselves to keep the Anarchic Hand under control, is a common feature of the syndrome.

In a video shown at the British Association Festival of Science at Imperial College in London, a woman patient can be seen trying to pick up an object off a table with her left hand, but her anarchic right hand interferes and tries to pick up the object first. The patient can be seen growing more and more distressed, hitting and holding down her right hand.

"I have seen patients who cannot avoid grabbing a very hot cup with the anarchic hand. They say, æNo, no, it's too hot,' but they still grab it," Della Sala said.

"It raises the issue of what is free will and suggests that free will might be rooted somewhere in the brain. It's really, really bizarre."

Della Sala said he had heard of only one case of someone with Strangelove Syndrome being injured by their anarchic hand - a man who tried to strangle himself in his sleep.

One patient tied her hand behind her back and adamantly refused to release it. "She said it was mad," Della Sala said.

Although he had found one case of Anarchic Hand described in 1909, the syndrome really only emerged in the 1980s, Della Sala said, adding he was sure more cases were going undiagnosed.

There was a related but different disorder called Utilisation Behaviour where the behaviour of both hands was uncontrolled. In this case the patient had no awareness of the problem, Della Sala said. In one case, a man placed several pairs of glasses on his nose without realising that anything was wrong.

Asked if Dr Strangelove Syndrome could affect any other part of the body, Della Sala said: "There is one report of Anarchic Foot in the Formosa Journal of Medicine." - Sapa-DPA