What causes Tourette Syndrome

Bubbles in a translucent liquid

Tourette syndrome can be defined as a neurological neurodiversity condition.

Tourette syndrome causes involuntary movements and vocalisations called tics.

Tics may occur anywhere on the body (e.g. head, neck, or back) or in the throat (e.g. coughing). Tics do not always involve the face and can also occur in the stomach, bladder, or bowel.

Tics may also involve making sudden sounds (e.g. sniffing, sneezing, or coughing).

Tourette syndrome may be present from birth but usually develops during the pre-school years or during early puberty. Only 10% of the 300,000 or so people who have Tourette syndrome in the UK have coprolalia, the technical term for swearing tics.

The severity of the symptoms may change over time, but there is no cure for this condition. Unfortunately many people misunderstand Tourette syndrome as a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder or a behavioural problem because they know little about it. There has also been a lot of negative representations within the media.

For individuals with Tourette syndrome, the motor and vocal tics are involuntary. They feel as if they are “obeying an internal command to do the movements”. The tics usually occur during episodes of stress or excitement.

It is believed that a part of the brain known as the basal ganglia is involved with involuntary movements. Tics are often preceded by urges to move, and they are usually brief but occasionally last for a few minutes. Some people with Tourette syndrome may only experience a few tics a day. Other people experience a large number of tics each day. Tics typically occur when a person is stressed but may occur without warning.

Types of tics:

  • motor tics – may include repetitive eye blinking
  • vocal tics – may include repetitive throat clearing
  • complex tics that can be motor or vocal, such as banging one’s head against a wall
  • swearing repetitively would be a complex vocal tic
  • simple tics can be motor or vocal that involve small movements or sounds under the breath

Research has shown that females suppress tics far more than males, in a similar way to autistic females masking autistic traits more than males.

Experts haven’t found one clear cause of Tourette syndrome although there are many theories. One theory is that Tourette’s is caused by a problem with the basal ganglia, an area of the brain that helps control muscle movement. Another theory states that Tourette’s is caused by problems in the brain stem, which controls some involuntary body functions such as heart rate and breathing.

The most widely accepted theory is that Tourette’s is linked to abnormal activity in the brain’s dopamine pathways. Interestingly this abnormal activity within the brain’s dopamine pathway is a common connection between several neurodiverse conditions like dyslexia.

There is no cure for Tourette syndrome, but there are treatments that can help manage the symptoms. Some of these include:

  • behavioural therapy – this type of therapy helps people learn to manage their tics and manage the situations that may trigger them.
  • medicines – these may also be used to treat co-occurring conditions such as ADHD or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • diet – some individuals have found their symptoms improve when they reduce the number of processed foods within their diet.

Just like the other neurodiverse conditions there are many strengths experienced by individuals who experience Tourettes, such as the ability to face adversity head-on, heightened empathy and compassion, high levels of creativity, and the ability to see humour in everything.