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Tourette syndrome is a complex neurological disorder that is characterized by repetitive, sudden, uncontrolled (involuntary) movements and sounds (vocalizations) called tics. Tourette syndrome is named for Georges Gilles de la Tourette, who first described this disorder in 1885. A variety of genetic and environmental factors likely play a role in causing Tourette syndrome. A small number of people with Tourette syndrome have been found to have mutations involving the SLITRK1 gene. The syndrome is believed to be linked to problems in certain areas of the brain, and the chemical substances (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) that help nerve cells talk to one another. It is estimated that about 1% of the population has Tourette syndrome. Many people with very mild tics may not be aware of them and never seek medical help. Tourette syndrome is four times as likely to occur in boys as in girls. Although Tourette syndrome can be a chronic condition with symptoms lasting a lifetime, most people with the condition experience their worst symptoms in their early teens, with improvement occurring in the late teens and continuing into adulthood.
The repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics are classified as either simple or complex. Simple motor tics are sudden, brief, repetitive movements that involve a limited number of muscle groups. Some of the more common simple tics include eye blinking and other eye movements, facial grimacing, shoulder shrugging, and head or shoulder jerking. Simple vocalizations might include repetitive throat-clearing, sniffing/snorting, grunting, or barking sounds.
Complex tics are distinct, coordinated patterns of movements involving several muscle groups. Complex motor tics might include facial grimacing combined with a head twist and a shoulder shrug. Other complex motor tics may actually appear purposeful, including sniffing or touching objects, hopping, jumping, bending, or twisting. Complex vocal tics include words or phrases. Perhaps the most dramatic and disabling tics include motor movements that result in self-harm such as punching oneself in the face or vocal tics including coprolalia (uttering swear words) or echolalia (repeating the words or phrases of others). Some tics are preceded by an urge or sensation in the affected muscle group, commonly called a premonitory urge. Some individuals with Tourette syndrome will describe a need to complete a tic in a certain way or a certain number of times in order to relieve the urge or decrease the sensation.
Tics are often worse with excitement or anxiety and better during calm, focused activities. Certain physical experiences can trigger or worsen tics, for example tight collars may trigger neck tics, or hearing another person sniff or throat-clear may trigger similar sounds. Tics do not go away during sleep but are often significantly diminished.
Many individuals with Tourette syndrome experience additional neurobehavioral problems including inattention; hyperactivity and impulsivity (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder—ADHD) and related problems with reading, writing, and arithmetic; and obsessive-compulsive symptoms such as intrusive thoughts/worries and repetitive behaviors. For example, worries about dirt and germs may be associated with repetitive hand-washing, and concerns about bad things happening may be associated with ritualistic behaviors such as counting, repeating, or ordering and arranging. People with Tourette syndrome have also reported problems with depression or anxiety disorders, as well as other difficulties with living, that may or may not be directly related to Tourette syndrome.
Many individuals with Tourette syndrome notice improvement of their symptoms in their late teens and early 20s. As a result, some may actually become symptom-free or no longer need medication for tic suppression. Although the disorder is generally lifelong and chronic, it is not a degenerative condition. Individuals with Tourette syndrome have a normal life expectancy. Tourette syndrome does not impair intelligence. Although tic symptoms tend to decrease with age, it is possible that neurobehavioral disorders such as ADHD, OCD, depression, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, and mood swings can persist and cause impairment in adult life.
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Tourette Syndrome Fact Sheet: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/tourette/detail_tourette.htm
NINDS Tourette Syndrome Information Page: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/disorders/tourette/tourette.htm
Scientists Discover First Gene for Tourette Syndrome:
More information on Tourette syndrome can be found at the following links from MedlinePlus, the National Library of Medicine Web site designed to help you research your health questions.