Walking Corpse Syndrome

Walking corpse syndrome is a rare neuropsychiatric mental disorder wherein affected people suffer from delusions of being dead, decomposition of their bodies, ceasing of their existence, and loss of all their important organs and/or blood. Some patients have stated that they can even smell their own decomposing/rotting flesh. Contradictorily, some patients incorrectly believe that they are immortal.

Other names for walking corpse syndrome are Cotard’s syndrome and Cotard’s delusion. Jules Cotard of France first observed and noted the symptoms of the condition in 1880. He termed it as ‘délire des negations’ or negative deliriums.

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Patients are suicidal and have a tendency to self-inflict harm. Due to the false perception of being deceased, some patients forgo eating and died due to starvation. In some cases, symptoms like guilt, anxiety, negativity, and denial may also be observed.

Doctors do not know the precise cause of walking corpse syndrome. But studies show that it is more common in people with lesions in right hemisphere of brain’s temporal and frontal area as well as in older depression patients. Women are more susceptible than men. Other risk factors that pose increased threat of developing walking corpse syndrome include underlying diseases like brain tumors, schizophrenia, brain atrophy, bipolar disorder, brain injury, seizure conditions, depression, stroke, migraine, and delirium.

Walking corpse syndrome is treated with drugs like antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mood stabilizers and/or ECT/electroconvulsive therapy.

Stages of walking corpse syndrome

The 3 different phases of walking corpse syndrome are listed below:

  • Germination phase, wherein affected people elicit clearly visible sense of increased worry about their health, grave mood, and elevated fear of remaining ill despite medical assistance
  • Blooming phase, wherein affected people exhibit the unique symptoms of walking corpse syndrome like delusions of being dead, immortality, elevated anxiety, negativity, etc
  • Chronic phase, wherein affected people are severely depressed because of emotional disturbances and/or paranoia

Symptoms of walking corpse syndrome

People with walking corpse syndrome may elicit the below listed signs and symptoms:

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  • Vague anxiety marks onset of the mental disorder. It is followed by delusions of being dead, decomposition of their bodies, and/or removal of their organs.
  • Abandonment of personal/physical health and hygiene
  • Elevated paranoia
  • Loss of interest in socializing and/or life’s pleasures
  • Building and keeping distance from family, friends, peers, etc.
  • Non-recognition of own face in mirror
  • Lost sense of difference between fantasy and reality
  • Abnormal and distorted world view
  • Excess guilt, increased insensitivity to pain, depression, negativity
  • Incorrect sensation of paralysis of body
  • Inclination to cause physical self-harm
  • Inclination to try or commit suicide
  • Thoughts of immortality in some patients
  • Smell or sound based hallucinations in some patients

Causes

  • The precise cause of walking corpse syndrome is unknown. Studies have shown its links to injuries or trauma to those regions of the brain which regulate emotion, feelings, and facial recognition. These regions include the amygdala (controls emotions) and the fusiform gyrus (controls recognition of faces).
  • Research also shows that the mental condition is related to brain lesions in the parietal lobe located in right hemisphere above occipital lobe and behind frontal lobe.

A few risk factors that may raise the vulnerability to developing the mental disorder are listed below:

  • People with kidney failure may develop walking corpse syndrome as a reaction to use of an antiviral called acyclovir. Patients are unable to remove CMMG ( metabolite of the antiviral) as the kidneys do not work. Subsequently, CMMG is passed into blood which triggers the anomalous symptoms.
  • Underlying presence of other mental disorders like schizophrenia, dementia, and bipolar disorders
  • Older adults with pre-existing cases of depression are more prone to developing walking corpse syndrome
  • Different brain diseases like brain tumors, brain atrophy, seizure disorders, Parkinson’s disease, brain injury/trauma, stroke, and/or migraine have also been found to increase the risk

Treatment of walking corpse syndrome

Treatment of walking corpse syndrome involves use of varied drugs and/or electroconvulsive therapy in some cases.

  • Depending on the cause of the mental disorder, patients may be prescribed different medicines like antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, and/or antidepressants. The drug therapy may involve a single drug or a combination of varied medicines. Mood stabilizers are often very useful in bipolar disorder patients.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy or ECT involves the placement of electrodes on the head of affected individual and administration of mild electrical impulses to the brain. It has been found that using ECT along with different medications can help manage symptoms more efficiently as compared to employing only drug therapy.
  • Counseling and other psychological therapies can help get rid of false beliefs and abnormal behaviors

Prognosis of walking corpse syndrome is dependent on the severity of the symptoms and the different treatment options used for controlling them. Proper treatment results in full recovery in some patients, while some die because of starvation.

 

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