4 Things You Didn’t Know About Tourette Syndrome

Tourette Syndrome is a disorder that involves physical and vocal tics. It appears to affect about 0.5 percent of all children and often improves in adulthood. People with Tourette Syndrome frequently have other conditions like OCD, ADHD and depression.

Despite being fairly common, Tourette Syndrome still isn’t well understood by the general public. Many people think of the disorder as mainly being about a compulsion to yell out obscenities, but this symptom is by no means the defining feature of Tourette’s.

Of course, you might already know that Tourette’s isn’t just compulsive swearing. But here are four things you probably don’t know about the disorder.

1. Some researchers believe Mozart and Kurt Cobain had Tourette Syndrome

Diagnosing historical figures with anything is always a tricky path to go down. But in a paper published at the end of 2015 called Tourette’s Syndrome in Famous Musicians, a pair of researchers argued that no less than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Kurt Cobain may have had Tourette’s.

While this claim is controversial and speculative, the paper also highlights several contemporary musicians known to have Tourette Syndrome, including Michael Wolff, James Durbin and Nick Van Bloss. Van Bloss, the subject of a BBC documentary called Mad but Glad, walked away from music for over a decade after suffering severe tics during a public performance, but later returned to considerable acclaim.

Another 2015 paper on the topic of Tourette’s and famous people again raises Mozart, as well as the English writer Samuel Johnson. It mentions Mozart as a “maybe” for a Tourette’s diagnosis and Johnson as a definite “yes.”

2. Music can decrease tics in Tourette’s

If a lot of musicians seem to have Tourette Syndrome, it may not be coincidence. Research published last year found that music can lead to a temporary reduction in tics for people with Tourette’s.

Listening to music reduced tics by a respectable amount, but it was playing music that had the most dramatic effect. The authors found that when people with Tourette’s performed music, tics went away “almost completely.” There was also a holdover effect where tics were less severe for some time after the performance.

3. Exercise can too

Music isn’t the only thing that can help with tics in Tourette’s.

As part of a 2014 study, researchers signed 18 people up for a session of intense aerobic exercise and watched what happened to their tics. Tic frequency went down both during and after the exercise compared with before the session began.

The participants also reported being happier and less anxious after the exercise, which might be related to the decrease in tics since anxiety can trigger “tic attacks.”

4. People with Tourette Syndrome form habits more easily

If a tic seems somewhat similar to a “bad habit” in the sense that it’s something automatic and repeated, there’s some science to back up that intuition.

Specifically, it turns out people with Tourette’s form habits more easily and turn to habitual responses more readily. The research also found specific brain changes associated with this pattern of behavior, which might open up new ways of understanding and, eventually, treating Tourette Syndrome.

As you can see, Tourette’s is a lot more complicated than some of the popular stereotypes of the disorder. In fact, it’s so complicated that there’s still a lot of work to be done toward understanding what it is and why it happens.

What researchers have found so far, though, suggests there are multiple activities like music and exercise that make it possible to manage the disorder or even thrive with it – just ask Mozart!

(Or, if Mozart didn’t actually have Tourette’s, ask Samuel Johnson…)