Cotards - Walking Corpse syndrome


Photo by Daniel Hollister

The idea of zombies walking round on earth seems like another scene from a horror film, but for some people it’s a reality. Cotard’s syndrome, more commonly known as Walking Corpse syndrome, is a rare mental disorder where the patient firmly believes they - or parts of their body - are dead. The disease is still mostly misunderstood but is thought to have links to various other mental disorders including bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The way in which it affects each individual is different whether it be they believe they have lost their vital organs or simply that they just don’t exist. In some severe cases sufferers have complained about the smell of their own rotting flesh.

The exact cause of the disorder is a mystery, although it is known that it is associated with an abnormality, or lesions, in the tissue of two regions in the right hemisphere of the brain. It has also been noted in patients that levels of metabolism in the brain are often very low. One doctor described the levels as resembling someone in a vegetative state or during anaesthesia. This feeling of being braindead is one commonly expressed by sufferers. They are often unsure of how they are speaking and walking etc. but are sure that they have somehow killed their own brain. The only place many feel comfortable is in the presence of the dead, so often feel the need to visit graveyards and even morgues if they can.

There are only a few hundred people affected by Cotard’s worldwide at one time. Although there is no direct cause, it has been linked to the use of some common household drugs used for the treatment of herpes and cold sores. The most well-known is Acyclovir which, unknown to most, causes 1% of users to suffer psychiatric problems like Cotard’s. The occurrence of renal failure combined with a breakdown product of the drug can cause high blood pressure. This increase in blood pressure has been linked to constrictions in the brain, causing these lesions to the brain tissue.

Patients are usually impossible to reason with when first diagnosed and feel as if they are in a limbo state between life and death. Although treatment is very successful, there is a relatively high suicide rate associated with this form of depression, sometimes through starvation as they no longer feel the need to eat. Treatment itself includes taking antidepressants combined with the use of Electroconvulsive Therapy – the administration of small impulses to a patients head through electrodes. Therapy sessions are another method used alongside these treatments which allow psychologists to develop further insight into this complex disorder.

Cotard’s Syndrome makes zombies a reality in the eyes of the sufferer. Even though no one else can see it, to them, they are dead and rotting. Luckily with advancements in antidepressants and other forms of treatment there is a solution which allows people to get through this illness and move back into the world of the living.

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