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In Some Rare Instances, Brain Damage Can Lead to Joke Addiction

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It’s generally a good thing to have a sense of humor. But for some people, joking can become a compulsion.

In two case studies by a pair of UCLA brain researchers recently published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, the subjects' brain trauma and dementia led to what the scientists describe as “intractable joking.” Called Witzelsucht (German for "joke addiction"), excessive joking is a real neurological disease. Coming up with puns is pathological.

For five years, one man, an anonymous 69-year-old, would wake his wife up in the middle of the night to tell her jokes he’d come up with. When she complained, he wrote them down instead—accumulating 50 pages of puns and poop jokes that he later revealed to the researchers.

Ten years before he visited the lab, this man suffered a brain hemorrhage that changed his behavior. He became compulsive, particularly about recycling. He would dig through dumpsters to try to find recyclables, and hoard napkins from restaurants. Five years after the episode, his compulsion turned toward comedy. In what was later attributed to a stroke, he became so obsessed with making jokes and puns that it began to wear on his relationship with his wife. He laughed incessantly at his own jokes, yet he struggled to find other people’s jokes funny. On a multiple choice test in the lab, he could identify the punch lines of jokes, but didn’t laugh or find them funny. But his own quips—like “How do you cure hunger? Step away from the buffet table!”—he couldn’t stop giggling at.

In the second case studied, a 57-year-old with dementia got fired from his job for his inability to quash his jokester persona. He was let go after he blurted “Who the hell chose this God-awful place?” at work. He “would frequently break out in laughter, almost cackling, at his own comments, opinions, or jokes, many of which were borderline sexual or political in content,” the researchers describe. He disco-danced during one visit to the clinic to meet with the researchers, grabbing the ties of passing physicians and comparing them on another visit. Like the aforementioned pun-lover, though, he didn’t find other people’s jesting amusing. His sense of humor was entirely personal. When he died, the man’s autopsy showed that he had Pick’s disease, a form of dementia, that resulted in severe atrophy of the frontal lobes of his brain.

These men did not die of laughter, and it sounds like their friends and family were excessively patient with them. Still, joke addiction is serious business. Figuring out the brain issues that lead to this compulsive jesting and merriment can help us understand how the brain processes humor—a particularly human behavior psychologists and other researchers still don’t entirely understand. Both the cases above represented patients with frontal lesions from brain trauma and neurodegenerative disease. The frontal regions of the brain, especially on the right side of the brain, seem to play a major role in our ability to see the humor in the world, and get other people’s jokes. People with lesions on the right frontal lobe of their brain still respond to silly puns and slapstick, but can’t appreciate more complicated jokes or those that are new to them (as in, told by someone else). And with the damage to the parts of the brain involved in self-control, these people lose the ability to stop themselves from making that terrible pun.

Next, perhaps researchers will discover the neurological root of Dad Jokes.

[h/t BBC]

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11 Fascinating Facts About Sigmund Freud
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Next to sheep, no one has done more for dreams than Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). While you may know him as the founder of psychoanalysis, you may not know as much about his work with therapy dogs, his Hollywood courtship, or his love affair with cocaine.

1. HE HAD A RARE BIRTH ANOMALY.

The first of eight children born to Jacob and Amalia Freud, newborn Sigmund arrived in 1856 with a curious aberration: A membrane known as a caul covered his head and face. Cauls are very unusual events, but harmlessly removed by attending physicians or midwives. Far from distressed, Amalia was overjoyed at the sight. She believed the folklore that says cauls herald the birth of a child destined for great accomplishments.

2. HE EXAMINED FROG BRAINS.

Freud’s early education and work was focused on neurology. After studying the sexual organs of the eel via dissection, he moved to comparing the brains of vertebrates and invertebrates. For six years, Freud dissected the brains of frogs, crayfish, and lampreys, describing the medulla oblongata and other then-oblique components of the brain and nervous system. He also made important contributions toward the discovery of the neuron.

3. HE EXPERIMENTED WITH HYPNOSIS.

After graduating from the University of Vienna, Freud began working at Vienna General Hospital and collaborating with fellow physician Josef Breuer. Breuer was an advocate of treating patients via hypnosis, which intrigued Freud. One of Breuer’s patients, known as “Anna O.,” seemed to recall unpleasant memories only when under the influence of hypnotic suggestion. Freud traveled to Paris to learn more from other physicians using hypnosis, but when he returned to Vienna in 1886 and opened his own practice, he began to step away from hypnosis—patients simply relaxing on his couch seemed to produce a similar recall effect.

4. HIS ETHICS COULD BE A LITTLE SHAKY.

Over time, Freud’s influence on psychiatry has been both celebrated and minimized. His critics argue that Freud was sometimes prone to manipulative behavior directed at his patients, as in the case of Horace Frink, an American psychoanalyst who submitted to Freud’s probing in 1921. Under Freud’s guidance, Frink divorced his wife and married Angelika Bijur—one of Frink's patients. This Match Game brand of psychiatry drew criticism after correspondence revealing Freud’s involvement in the pair was unearthed by Frink’s daughter in the 1970s.

5. HE HATED THE U.S.

Though Freud was feted in the United States for his provocative psychoanalytical theories, he disliked everything but the compliments. Traveling to America by steamship in 1909 with Carl Jung, Freud recoiled at the manners of his American hosts (who used his first name) and felt the culture as a whole was too preoccupied with money. Such was his dislike for the country that when the Nazis took over Vienna in 1938, Freud initially stuck around rather than accept a relative’s invitation to come seek shelter in Manhattan. (However, he willingly fled to London after Princess Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-granddaughter, intervened.)

6. HOLLYWOOD WANTED HIS HELP.

Following the publication of several books on his theories, including 1899’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud’s notoriety grew exponentially. In 1925, MGM head Samuel Goldwyn declared him the “greatest love specialist in the world” and asked him to consult on scripts for several love stories from history, including Antony and Cleopatra. Freud had no interest in that film or any other. He did, however, once make time for an informal examination of actor Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s “Tramp” character, Freud wrote in 1931, was Chaplin channeling his own self “as he was in his early dismal youth.”

7. HE LIKED HIS COCAINE.

Before being stigmatized as a dangerous and addictive stimulant, cocaine was enjoyed at the turn of the century as a safe and practical way to stimulate activity. Freud found relief from bouts of sadness while on the drug and also appreciated its ability to provoke extended monologues about things normally tucked away in the recesses of his brain. He wrote four papers celebrating the drug’s effects and even used it on some of his patients. He quit the drug later in life, calling it a distraction.

8. HE HAD THERAPY DOGS.

Freud was using animal companions to soothe anxious patients long before it was common. He sometimes allowed his Chow-Chow, Jofi, to sit in with his patients during appointments and noticed that they became measurably more relaxed. When the idea of therapy dogs was explored further in the 1960s, researchers drew support from Freud’s writing about Jofi to help establish credibility for the approach.

9. HE HELPED SELL COUCHES.

Freud’s preference for patients to splay out on a couch, staring at the ceiling to help clear their mindS for revelatory thinking, became a standard of psychoanalytic practice. In the 1940s, the Imperial Leather Furniture Company of Queens manufactured couches that were specifically for the psychoanalytical field, lacking buttons or cushions that might distract nervous patients.

10. HE WAS NOMINATED FOR A NOBEL PRIZE 13 TIMES.

Between 1915 and 1938, Freud was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine 12 times and the Nobel in Literature once—yet was never awarded any of them. His critics charged that psychoanalysis was an unproven practice. Asked to endorse him for a prize, Albert Einstein begged off, citing uncertainty about Freud’s conclusions. Freud did receive the Goethe prize (given by the city of Frankfurt, Germany, in honor of the poet Goethe) in 1930: His daughter, Anna, traveled to Frankfurt, Germany to accept on his behalf, since Freud was ill with cancer.

11. THIEVES ONCE TRIED TO STEAL HIS ASHES.

Freud died by suicide in 1939, after a long and painful struggle with epithelioma. In 2014, his cremated ashes—housed in a 2300-year-old Greek urn given to him by Princess Marie Bonaparte—were nearly snatched by thieves at Golders Green Crematorium in London. The urn, which also contained the remains of his wife Martha, was damaged in the attempted theft. Crematorium employees then moved the urn from public display to a more secure location; it's unclear if the culprits were ever apprehended.

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A Breakthrough Global Study of Depression Finds 44 Genetic Variants Linked to the Disease
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Though depression affects an estimated 14 percent of the world’s population, scientists know very little about the underlying causes of the disorder, and that makes it incredibly difficult to treat. Even now, researchers are still debating whether common antidepressant medications even work at all, and if they do, why.

New research published in the journal Nature Genetics provides a big step in figuring out why some people suffer from depression while others don’t, identifying 44 genetic variants that are risk factors for major depression, 30 of which are new. They also found two regions of the brain that appear to be associated with the development of the disorder.

The study is the result of an international effort by more than 200 researchers involved with the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium. It looked at more than 135,000 cases of depression (both self-reported and clinically assessed) and almost 345,000 control cases. It’s the largest study on the genetic basis of depression ever done.

The researchers found that all humans carry some of the 44 risk factors identified. Some people carry more than others, putting them at greater risk for developing depression. They also identified the prefrontal and anterior cingulate cortices (both located at the front of the brain) as the regions of the brain probably linked with the development of depression.

Some of the risk factors the researchers identified are also involved in other psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia, which isn't entirely surprising—a 2007 study from the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium found that people with depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia as well as developmental disorders like ADHD and autism share the same variations in four locations in their genetic code.

By identifying genetic risk factors associated with major depressive disorder, the scientists hope to increase our understanding of why depression strikes some people and not others. "[M]ajor depression is a brain disorder," the researchers conclude. "Although this is not unexpected, some past models of [major depressive disorder] have had little or no place for heredity or biology." They firmly put to rest the idea that depression is entirely a matter of environment.

Environment certainly plays a role—the researchers found links between lower education levels and higher body mass index and depression risk as well—but genetics may impact whether someone whose circumstances put them at risk of depression actually develops the disorder. Depression is still highly stigmatized, which often prevents people from seeking treatment for it, according to several studies. Further understanding of the genetic underpinnings of the disorder may help counter negative perceptions of depression as a character flaw or a sign of laziness.

The study could eventually change how doctors treat depression. Many of the genetic variants identified by this study are linked to targets of current antidepressant medications, like serotonin. But the research may also lead to the development of new medications and therapies that could work for more people (current medications don't work for everyone) and potentially have fewer side effects than existing treatments.

The study partially relied on self-reported depression diagnoses, meaning there's some wiggle room in knowing whether those people are actually clinically depressed to the degree that a medical professional would diagnose. Further research will need to confirm that these genetic variants are indeed linked to depression. There are likely even more gene variants related to depression risk, as well, but they might have too small of an effect to be identified by this study. The researchers hope to continue their work to understand the links between environmental stressors, genetic variations, and depression risk in the future.

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