The symptoms can be unsettling, to say the least: a person may suddenly start twitching uncontrollably and shouting obscenities. Called Tourette's syndrome after Dr. Gilles de la Tourette, who first described it in 1884, the strange disorder was thought to be a psychological problem, but psychotherapy proved useless in controlling the behavior of Touretters, as sufferers of the syndrome are called.
Doctors now believe that Tourette's syndrome is a neurological disorder that affects the chemical balanced of neurotransmitters in the brain. However, little is known, and many Touretters are not properly diagnosed. For some reason it afflicts more males than females. Many researchers think the syndrome may be inherited. It generally begins in childhood with facial tics and can progress to spasms involving much of the body. As one Touretter described it, keeping his muscles from twitching was like "trying to stop a sneeze." Only during sleep are the symptoms absent.
In medieval times, some people who were burned at the stake as witches may have been Touretters. Today there is medication that, by altering the brain's chemistry, helps many Touretters control their spasms and their urges to yell and curse.