As officials in Le Roy, N.Y., continue to reassure worried parents that their high school is safe, one doctor says that social media may be spreading the mysterious twitching symptoms that have plagued more than a dozen teens and at least one adult in this upstate New York town.
The Tourette's-like symptoms have been diagnosed by a neurologist who has treated at least 10 of the affected teen girls as conversion disorder, a psychological condition once known as "mass hysteria," in which psychological stress causes physical symptoms. Dr. Laszlo Mechtler said that with treatment, the girls are getting better. As publicity around the case continues, new teens have posted videos of themselves twitching on Facebook, YouTube and other websites.
Dr. David Lichter, a professor of neurology at the University of Buffalo who has seen one of the patients, says social media could be spreading the tics, in an instance of video gone viral.
"If you are a person who is vulnerable in some way, because of your own stresses or anxieties, I think there is a potential for that to create further spread beyond the area that was initially involved," Lichter told TODAY.
Meanwhile, angry parents blasted school officials at a public meeting over the weekend, demanding answers and more reassurance that the school is safe. Environmental activist Erin Brokovich has dispatched a team to Le Roy to investigate whether the illness could be realted to a train derailment and chemical spill that happened near the school more than 40 years ago.
The Le Roy school district posted a long letter on its web page with links to the state Department of Health's investigation, which concluded that nothing infectious or environmental was to blame for the twitching illness. The school district noted that the fact the illness began and is concentrated in one group of teenage girls points to non-environmental causes:
"In closing, we have worked for the past several months with experts and professionals both medical and environmental to better understand this condition. Extensive research, examination, and testing have revealed that there is no environmental or infectious cause for this ailment. Environmental causes do not discriminate. We would see a widespread impact across all age groups and genders."
In an earlier interview with TODAY, Mechtler explained that the diagnosis of coversion disorder does not mean that the symptoms aren't real or the patients aren't really suffering.
“This is a subconscious effect that occurs in patients that may be prone to anxiety or mood disorders,” he explained. “But these are definitely real symptoms. It sounds like an infectious disease, but should not be perceived as one. The state department of health made a complete review of the air quality and mold - and everything was negative so we do not think this has an infectious cause.”