Dancing hysteria: June 24, 1374
A group of people in the medieval German town of Aachen begin dancing wildly and soon others join them in a bizarre incident that lasts for days, then spreads to nearby communities in the Rhine River Valley. According to eyewitnesses, “people join hands, dance, leap, scream and shake for hours” and many of them appear to “see visions.” Even though their feet are bloody and bruised, most dance until they collapse from exhaustion. Some actually die from heart attacks or strokes.
Onlookers believe the dancers are possessed and exorcisms are performed on some of them. People in the town also pray to St. John, who some believe may be responsible for the strange behavior. Musicians are encouraged to play along with the dancers, then slow the music down with the hope that that will get them to stop. But it actually spurs more people to join the dancing.
Some dancers roll around in the dirt, squealing and acting like animals; others rip off their clothing and begin having sex with other dancers. Some scream for people to beat the bottoms of their feet while they writhe on the ground, or they beg people to throw them high in the air.
What caused this madness?
There have been several theories. One explanation that has been suggested is ergot poisoning. Ergot is a parasitical fungus that grows on grain, and that, when ingested, can cause hallucinogenic effects, similar to the impact of LSD. But that doesn’t explain why it would cause people to dance and affect everyone the same way. Others believe it may have been staged by members of a religious cult, that it was some kind of ancient banned Greek or Roman ritual that otherwise would have resulted in harsh punishment or death. Those who subscribe to this theory point out that many of the dancers did not actually live in the towns, but were passing through on a pilgrimage.
But the most popular explanation is that the dancing mania was one of the earliest recorded forms of mass hysteria related to communal stress. That region of Germany had suffered terrible flooding a few months earlier. Once people saw others dancing, they felt compelled to join in. Almost two centuries later, a similar dancing outbreak occurred in Strasbourg, France, a town that had been ravaged by syphilis, smallpox, leprosy, the bubonic plague and starvation. It started with just one woman, named Frau Troffea, who started dancing nonstop in the street. This went on for days and soon others joined her dancing frenzy until almost 400 townspeople were involved. It lasted almost a month and doctors, who believed the dancers were suffering from “hot blood,” recommended that the best treatment was to let them to dance it out. Places were created in the town’s market to allow this to occur. But once again the dancing hysteria took its toll—several people died of heart attacks, strokes or exhaustion.
A more recent case of inexplicable mass hysteria occurred in Tanganyika in 1962. It started with three young girls giggling and laughing uncontrollably and spread through their school. Over the next several months, more than half the school’s students were affected and it had to close. Then the laughing epidemic spread to nearby villages and ultimately 14 schools had to close because students were unable to go to class. Almost 1,000 people, mostly school aged children, were affected. The hysteria lasted off and on for more than a year.
Research by Purdue professor Christian Hempelmann found that it most likely was caused by what’s known as Mass Psychogenic Illness or MPI. He believes it stems from shared stress in a community. “It usually occurs in a group of people who don’t have a lot of power,” he explained in an interview with the Chicago Tribune. “MPI is a last resort for people of a low status. It’s an easy way for them to express that something is wrong. That may be why it has come to be associated more often with women.”
Hempelmann pointed out that Tanganyika had just won its independence and that at least some of the young girls affected had reported they were feeling stressed by the higher expectations of their teachers and parents.
More slices of history:
First kidney transplant: June 17, 1950
Alcoholics Anonymous born: June 10, 1935
Bizarre stomach experiment: June 6, 1822
Heimlich maneuver born: June 1, 1974
Toothpaste in tubes: May 22, 1892
The Fist Vaccination: May 14, 1786
The Pill Arrives: May 9, 1960
Hello, Cheerios: May 1, 1941
First hit workout video: April 24, 1982
Insulin goes mainstream: April 15, 1923
Polio vaccine celebrated: April 12, 1955
First artificial heart: April 4, 1969
First batch of Coca-Cola: March 29, 1886
Disruption of circadian rhythms tied to aging
Studies have found that disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm can increase the risk of certain disease, such as obesity and diabetes, and now research at MIT has determined that the gene regulating our internal clock could also be tied to longevity.
The study shows that the gene SIRT1 plays a key role in controlling circadian rhythms. These rhythms decay as you age, but the research found that boosting SIRT1 levels in the brain could prevent this, which could potentially reduce the effects of aging.
Previous research concluded that a robust circadian period was associated with longer lives in mice, which led to speculation about the genes linked to these rhythms. For this study, the researchers split four groups of genetically engineered mice – one with normal SIRT1 levels, one with no SIRT1, one with twice the normal amount of the gene and one group with 10 times the normal amounts. Among the mice with extra SIRT1, there was a less significant decline in circadian control that accompanies aging.
The researchers hope that by delivering SIRT1 activators to the brain or by developing drugs to enhance circadian control systems, diseases associated with aging could be treated or prevented.
Antidepressants could be risk to unborn babies
The British National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) reports that women who take popular antidepressant medications during the early stages of pregnancy may be putting their unborn children at risk. According to Professor Stephen Pilling of NICE, popular SSRI inhibitors could double the risk of a child being born with a heart defect. He warns that for women with mild to moderate depression, it may not be worth taking the medications, given the potential risks.
According to the report, one in six British women of child-bearing age takes the commonly used type of depression medication. However, prescription guidelines specifically warn against only the use of one SSRI drug – paroxetine. The risk of a child being born with a heart defect jumps from two in 100 to four in 100 when the mother took any SSRI in early pregnancy.
Pilling said that the risks of these medications is not appropriately discussed with patients. “We make a quite a lot of effort really to discourage women from smoking or drinking even small amounts of alcohol in pregnancy, and yet we’re perhaps not yet saying the same about antidepressant medication, which is going to be carrying similar - if not greater - risks," he said.
Scientists create 3-D digital brain
Researchers have constructed the first ever high-resolution 3D digital model of the human brain, which captures the brain’s anatomy in microscopic detail. The model is published in the journal Science, and was given the name “Big Brain.” Researchers plan to make the model available to neuroscientists to aid them in their research.
Researchers sliced 7,400 sections from the brain of a deceased 65-year-old woman. Each slice - half the thickness of a human hair - was stained to bring out anatomical detail before being scanned into the computer in high definition. The final step was to reassemble all 7,400 slices once the images were uploaded into the computer. The whole process took 10 years to complete, and captured 80 billion neurons that can now be studied in great detail.
Researchers will be able to zoom in microscopic detail to particular parts of the brain. Some scientists have likened it to Google Earth.