Alien Hand Syndrome -- Causes and Cures
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Alien Hand Syndrome -- Causes and Cures

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March 1, 2012

By ALISON TURNER, Contributing Columnist

Have you ever hit something when you didn't mean to, stuffed food into your mouth without wanting it,   or pulled off your sock immediately after putting it on?  If your hand has ever done something as if it had a mind of its own, it may not be a blip of nature, but that you have the rare condition of alien hand syndrome (AHS), also sometimes known as anarchic hand syndrome. 

What is Alien Hand Syndrome?

While some scientists and doctors squabble over the precise symptoms of alien hand syndrome, the National Library of Medicine defines the condition as one in which the hand has "involuntary, autonomous, and purposeful behaviors that are perceived as being controlled by an external force."   In other words, if you have AHS, you really, really didn't mean to slap your ex-girlfriend.  There are no underlying subconscious intents involved with the actions of an "alien hand."

How Did I Get an Alien Hand and What Do I Do to Get Rid of It? 

Alien hand syndrome can arise from lesions in the corpus callosum, the nervous tissue that connects and allows communication between the two hemispheres of the brain, damage to the medial frontal cortex, or certain neurodegenerative diseases and other conditions  (see below). 

There is currently no absolute cure for alien hand syndrome, though recent studies have found ways to help control symptoms and prevent conditions that put people at risk. 

Here are 10 possible causes of alien hand syndrome and what you can do about it, based on studies from around the world.

1.  Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD).  CJD is a neurodegenerative disorder that occurs worldwide at the rate of approximately one in one million each year.  CJD rapidly deteriorates the patient's motor and mental capacity, and can often manifest in involuntary movements.  Unfortunately, CJD is fatal:  the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that after onset of CJD the disease "leads to death usually within one year."

As far back as 2000, scientists have found evidence that alien hand syndrome could occur along with CJD.  A team of experts with the Department of Neurology at Hillel Yaffe Medical Center in Israel, including DR. R. Inzelberg,  admitted a patient who had been healthy up to a month before admission, at which time he suffered behavior changes, aggression, hallucinations, had troubles with tasks involving both hands, such as clapping, and made spontaneous movements with his left hand. 

The patient was unaware of these movements "until they were brought to his attention."  The patient was soon diagnosed with CJD with alien hand syndrome that "occurred early in the disease" before other involuntary jerks from CJD had manifested. 

The team concluded that Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease should be "added" to the diagnosis of diseases presenting with an alien hand.

The risk of CJD increases with age, so that in people over 50 the annual rate is 3.4 out of one million.  Most cases of CJD occur sporadically, while 5-15% of CJD patients inherit the disease as a mutation.   If you suspect yourself or a loved one of an alien hand, seek a professional as soon as possible, as there is a chance, however small, that the unwanted actions are an early sign of CJD.

2.  Stroke.  If the blood that flows to the brain stops, the brain cannot get oxygen, blood cells die, and the brain has suffered a stroke.  There are two types of stroke, ischemic and hemorrhagic, the former being of higher relevance to alien hand syndrome. 

An ischemic stroke occurs when a blood vessel leading to the brain is blocked by a clot, either because the clot has formed in an artery that is narrow, or because a clot had formed elsewhere and then traveled towards the brain and got stuck.   High blood pressure is the number one risk factor for stroke, and risk is also higher for those with diabetes, a family history of stroke, high cholesterol, and above the age of 55. 

In 2008, Drs Andrew Spector, William Freeman and William Cheshire with the Department of Neurology at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida,  "encountered an acute presentation of alien hand syndrome" from a patient who suffered an ischemic stroke. 

The team reports that because the condition was "not recognized" at the emergency department, diagnosis was delayed and treatment compromised.  They recommend that early recognition of "manifestations of stroke, such as an acute alien hand syndrome" leads to a faster diagnosis and a chance for more effective therapy. 

Leading a healthy lifestyle that prevents obesity, avoids excessive alcohol, salt, and smoking, is one of the first things you can do to decrease your likelihood for stroke. 
However, even if you do not find yourself to be at risk for stroke, if your hand grows a will of its own, you may want to seek a professional.  The alien may be trying to tell you something. 

3. Corpus Callosum Tumor.  As mentioned in the introduction, the corpus callosum is fiber that connects the two hemispheres of the brain.  A lesion in this area can manifest in alien hand syndrome, and a tumor could create the same effect.   A tumor is an abnormal mass of tissues in which cells multiply uncontrollably. 

In the brain, this tumor takes up space in the skull and gets in the way of normal activity, whether by applying pressure on, pushing against, invading or damaging healthy brain tissue.  Because the functions of the body are controlled by different parts of the brain, a tumor in one area will result in different symptoms than a tumor in a different part of the brain,  so that not every tumor will result in the symptoms of alien hand syndrome.

Treatment for brain tumor is generally surgery, radiation therapy, and/or chemotherapy, depending on the size and location of the tumor.   Unfortunately, these treatments do not always finalize the patient's struggle with his or her brain tumor. 

In 2011, specialists at the Department of Pediatric Neurosurgery at Lille University Hospital in France, led by Matthieu Vinchon,  analyzed the "health status" of 207 adult patients who survived pediatric brain tumors.  14% of these patients developed a new tumor that required further surgery, and 7 of the total 207 died because of tumor progression. 

Only 18% of patients were free of problems related to the brain tumor they had surgically removed as a child.  The doctors conclude that "adult patients treated for brain tumor in childhood are at significant risk of tumor progression."

If you notice expression of alien hand syndrome and had a tumor in your brain as a child, get checked for more growth in the corpus callosum. 

4.  Epilepsy.  In addition to lesions or tumors in the corpus callosal (see above), AHS has been reported after surgery in this same area of the brain to treat epilepsy. 

Epilepsy is a disorder in the brain that causes seizures when clusters of nerve cells in the brain send out the wrong signals, resulting in strange emotions, behavior and sensations. 

Epilepsy can occur because of illness, injury or abnormal brain development, though in many cases the cause is not known.   There is no cure for epilepsy but it can be treated by medicine, surgery, and sometimes by diet.

If you have epilepsy but are worried about surgery and its potential side-effects, such as alien hand syndrome, don't lose hope.  A 2010 study published by a large team of specialists from institutions from across the United States, including Dr. Robert Fisher with Stanford University,  analyzed the effectiveness of treating epilepsy by stimulating the "anterior nuclei" of the thalamus with an "implanted neurostimulater system."

Data from one hundred and ten adult participants with at least six epileptic seizures per month was recorded for three months, After the third month, patients receiving stimulation had 29% greater reduction in seizures compared to those who were not.   The team concludes that "bilateral stimulation of the anterior nuclei of the thalamus reduces seizures," and that benefits persisted for two years after the study.  If your doctor does not suggest the neurostimulator implant for epilepsy treatment, consider asking him or her about its possibilities for your particular situation. 

5.  Moyamoya Disease.  Alien hand syndrome can be caused by moyamoya disease. "Moyamoya" means "puff of smoke" in Japanese, which is how the Japanese discoverers of moyamoya disease described the condition.  In moyamoya disease, tiny vessels form around the basal ganglia, near the base of the brain, to compensate for arteries that are blocked in the same area. 

Moyamoya disease is rare, and primarily affects children but can occur in adults.  The disease tends to run in families, so that some researchers think that moyamoya is an inherited abnormality. 

Early symptoms include ischemic stroke, muscular weakness,  and, in a few cases, alien hand syndrome.

Current treatment includes revascularization surgery to restore blood flow to the brain.   In 2011 a group of experts from multiple departments at Seoul National University Children's Hospital in Republic of Korea, including Dr. Seung-Ki Kim with the Division of Pediatric Neurosurgery,  investigated the long-term outcome for one hundred and twenty three children with moyamoya disease who have reached adulthood. 

All participants had undergone surgery to treat moyamoya when they were children.  Data from questionnaires revealed that "the presence of neurological deficits" decreased these patients' scores on college exams and chances of employment, that their rate of acquiring a driver's license was relatively low, and that more than one half reported "subjectively assessed neurological problems."

The study concludes, however, that overall pediatric patients with moyamoya disease show "favorable social adaptations in adulthood."  The team adds that early diagnosis and intervention are "essential" to children with moyamoya becoming socially adapted later in life.

Considering moyamoya disease as the cause behind alien hand syndrome could lead to the earlier diagnosis of moyamoya that is so important for post-diagnostic treatment. 

6.  Focus on Your Hand to Help Alien Hand Syndrome

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