Tourette's May Confer Faster Cognition
> 7/18/2007 1:53:40 PM

Some researches, including Nobel Prize winner John Nash, suspect that spectrum disorders with strong genetic components can confer an evolutionary advantage. We previously discussed studies showing that children of schizophrenic parents are more creative. A new study led by Michael Ullman, Ph.D., provides evidence that Tourette’s syndrome is associated with enhanced procedural cognition.

Tourette’s syndrome is characterized by motor and verbal tics that can only be suppressed temporarily with great effort. While popular culture often portrays Tourette’s syndrome as a crippling and constant flurry of curse words, less than 15% of cases involve the ejaculation of taboo words. More commonly, those with Tourette’s syndrome are able to achieve successful and happy lives with tics that taper off in adulthood. These tics are attributed to abnormalities in the frontal/basal-ganglia, an area that is also associated with procedural knowledge.

Dr. Ullman tested two types of language ability, procedural (systematic application of grammar rules) and idiosyncratic (irregular formations recalled from memory). He found that children with Tourette’s syndrome performed significantly faster at procedural tasks like generating past-tenses of verbs. In an additional twist, they were also found to be faster at a specific kind of picture-naming; they could identify pictures of manipulatable objects more swiftly than the average child even though they performed normally with all other objects. These two superior abilities are interesting, because they correspond to the two types of Tourette’s tics: verbal and motor.

It should not be too suprising that people with Tourette's syndrome have some superior language abilities. After all, Samuel Johnson, the famous author of A Dictionary of the English Language had a bevy of noticeable tics. It was obvious that he could process language in a manner unreachable to the average man. For example, he would often write down only one half of a poem and then complete it much later with memory and rhyme deduction.

Dr. Ullman does not speculate about the implications of the relation between abnormalities and enhanced abilities, but a few possibilities seem ripe for further research. It is possible that children with Tourette’s syndrome focus so much on controlling their behavior that they paradoxically gain greater mastery than those who do not struggle to maintain control. This explanation is supported by some research, for example by a 2005 study from the University of Nottingham, which shows that those with Tourette’s have more voluntary control over goal-directed behavior. Another possibility is that Tourette’s first increases the speed of some cognition, which can then cause problems when the brain cannot manage the faster pace.

This line of inquiry is exciting because it adds a positive dimension to mental abnormalities. Of course not all abnormalities will have a benefit, but the acknowledgment that such benefits are possible can help pierce the uniformly negative view of abnormal function. Some disorders might be best viewed as differences along the spectrum of cognition instead of failures of cognition.

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