It’s 1920, and an epidemic is in full effect. Encephalitis lethargica (also known as sleepy sickness) has spread across the globe, leaving some of its victims as still as statues, unable to move or speak. With no known cure, these people become passive observers of the world around them as it evolved from the jazz age, through a world war, and into the modern age.
In 1969, a young neurologist named Dr. Oliver Sacks, at Beth Abraham Hospital in New York, hopes to help these people break out of their semiconscious state. But how? He had heard about a new experimental drug, L-dopa, which was being used to treat patients with Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Sacks noticed that his patients had very similar, but more extreme, symptoms to those seen in Parkinson’s disease: tremor, rigidity, bradykinesia (slowed movements), impaired posture and balance, and loss of autonomic movements like blinking or smiling. Perhaps L-dopa would help his sleepy sickness patients as well!
In a clinical study, Dr. Sacks gave his patients L-dopa. Miraculously, they woke up! Some patients who had not been able to get out of their wheelchair for many years, literally stood up and walked on their own! How strange it must have been to come back to a world after 40 years that had changed so much! One patient did her flapper dances and talked about Gershwin and other 1920s contemporaries.
But L-dopa was not a perfect fix. The drug had some major side effects, including jerks and stops as well as repetitive and ticking movements. At first, these uncontrolled muscle movements seemed like a small price to pay for their new take at life. For a few, L-dopa triggered extreme appetites for food and sex. The worst side effect was that once the drug wore off, the patients reverted to their catatonic states once again. For many patients, the side effects were too much, as they felt like they were losing control and dignity, and asked to be taken off the drug.
Sadly, L-dopa did not cure these patients, and every patient eventually relapsed into their previous statuesque selves. But it did give them a chance for a new life, even if it was only for a short time.
To learn more about Dr. Oliver Sacks and his role in discovering the effects of L-dopa, read his book or watch the film Awakenings.
~Images adapted from Wavebreak Media LTD/Wavebreak Media Ltd./Corbis y Laguna Design/Science Photo Library/Corbis, and via blogs.plos.org.