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Biology 103
2001 Second Web Report
On Serendip

Ahwooooo! Does the Wolfman liveth?

Rianna Ouellette

Outside, the full moon glows upon a forest clearing. A haunting cry is raised, a scream escapes the hunted's throat, and suddenly Lon Chaney Jr. covered in fake hair bursts into the glen, salivating while sprinting after the properly terrified actress. That scene may bring back memories of watching "The Wolf Man", a Hollywood interpretation of lycanthropy. I loved that movie and watching it raised some questions to which I have only now tried to find answers. What exactly is lycanthropy? Is it a disease itself or a possible manifestation of/caused by a different mental disorder? Do people in the current day still believe that they turn into wolves or did that stop in the 1500s? Online information appears to come in two categories: personal web pages and psychiatric organizations, one dealing with the more dramatic forms of werewolvery and the other with the idea that lycanthropy is caused by a different mental disease (mainly schizophrenia).

In order to understand the last two questions, it is necessary to know what lycanthropy is in the first place. The Skeptic's dictionary defines it as such: "The delusional belief that one has turned into an animal, especially a werewolf. In Europe during the Middle Ages, lycanthropy was commonly believed to occur due to witchcraft or magic. One modern theory is that the rye bread of the poor was often contaminated with the fungus ergot, which caused hallucinations and delusions about werewolves" (1). The key word in that definition is delusional. It is obvious that the common man (and psychiatrist) does not believe that a person could truly change form, leaving the affliction to be classified as a mental disease as opposed to an actual occurrence. The next big question would then be, does the field of psychiatry recognize lycanthropy to be a classifiable disorder? The answer to that appears to be yes. In a psychology course at the University of Louisiana at Monroe lycanthropy is listed as a disorder under the history of psychopathy (6). The term is also used in psychiatric journals describing case studies.

The earliest modern cases (circa 1950s and later) to be found online at this time are dated at 1975. The cases were reported in the November issues of the Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal. One case went as follows: "The twenty-year-old patient, referred to as Mr. H, was convinced that he was a werewolf. A drug user...he had hiked into a forest near his post and had ingested LSD and strychnine...they had an instant and potent effect on the young man, who claimed to have seen fur growing on his hands and felt it sprouting on his face. Soon he was overcome by a compulsion to chase after, catch, and devour live rabbits...Placed on the tranquilizer chlorpromazine, Mr. H was weaned away from drugs and received adjunct therapy for some nine months, during which time he continued to hear disembodied...Tests indicated his delusions were "compatible with acute schizophrenic or toxic psychosis" He was treated with an antipsychotic drug" (5). The other case involved an older man who had no history of drug abuse, but when doctors performed a brain biopsy he was found to have an "abnormal physiological deterioration of cerebral tissue, known as walnut brain" (5). The next case was reported in the 1977 October issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry, concerning a 49-year-old woman of average intelligence who believed that she was a wolf. Harvey Rostenstock, M.D. and Kenneth R. Vincent, Ed.D wrote the article that appeared in the journal and stated that they felt that she suffered from "chronic pseudoneurotic schizophrenia...the delusional material was organized about a lycanthropic matrix. Her symptom complex included the following classic symptoms: 1. Delusions of werewolf transformation under extreme stress. 2. Preoccupation with religious phenomenology, including feeling victimized by the evil eye. 3. Reference to obsessive need to frequent graveyards and woods. 4. Primitive expression of aggressive and sexual urges in the form of bestiality. 5. Physiological concomitants of acute anxiety. These symptoms occurred significantly in the absence of exposure to toxic substances. Furthermore, the patient responded to the treatment protocol used for acute schizophrenia psychosis" (2). Lycanthropy was addressed again in 1992 in a paper titled "The Psychopharmacology of Lycanthropy," published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (9). Partial lycanthropy (believing one looks like a wolf but is not actually a wolf) was discovered in a man in March of 2000 and reported in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry (2) as well as in the British Journal of Psychiatry (3).

Some psychiatrists diagnose lycanthropy as a depersonalization disorder "defined by the American Psychiatry Association as 'the persistent or recurrent feeling of being detached from one's mental processes or body' " (9). It is also interesting to note that people who have problems with lycanthropy usually have problems with depression as well. Substance abuse, while it may contribute to and/or agitate the condition, does not appear to cause it. So what does? Doctors are not certain, but the largest finger is being pointed at schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a disorder in which normal cognitive behaviors and abilities become disturbed (7). Specific abnormalities include "delusions and hallucinations; alterations of the senses; an inability to sort and interpret incoming sensations, and an inability therefore to respond appropriately; an altered sense of self; and changes in emotions, movements and behavior" (8). It affects roughly 1% of Americans, and is highly treatable with an impressive success rate. While it is believed that genes play a part in those who develop schizophrenia, the actual causes are not known, and there are four main theories.

One is that over activity of dopamine neurotransmission in cortical and limbic areas of the brain may cause schizophrenia (7). Drugs that cause schizophrenic-like psychosis (such as amphetamines) act on the dopamine pathways; one reason that overactive dopamine transmissions could be linked to the disease. Another theory is that NMDA receptor dysfunction can be blamed; drugs such as PCP interfere with NMDA receptors and cause schizophrenic hallucinations. Researchers have also found that "disturbances of the single-carbon folate pathway lead to schizophrenia. This metabolic pathway provides carbon groups for a variety of biochemical reactions in the brain, including the synthesis of purine and pyrimidine nucleotides and the methyl-donating amino acid methionine" (7). The last theory is that the disturbance of nerve cell membranes, which harbor dopamine and NMDA receptors, can affect how neurons transmit messages to nerve synapses. Studies have shown that a "deficit in the level of highly unsaturated fatty acids is associated with schizophrenia, as is decreased activity of the enzyme phospholipase A2, which breaks down membrane phospholipids" (7). This leads scientists to believe that faulty transmission of signals may cause schizophrenia.

While lycanthropy is not 100% linked to schizophrenia, there appears to be enough evidence (such as the diagnosis of lycanthropic patients) to suggest that the two are probably not independent of each other. It is just extremely rare for the disorder to express itself through lycanthropy. I find that using schizophrenia to explain lycanthropy can work, but perhaps there is something more behind it; something extra within the causes of schizophrenia that makes it manifest as lycanthropy. Why should the person believe him/herself to be a wolf? Why not as a dog, a cat, or some other animal? Will we ever know?

WWW Sources

1)Skeptic's Dictionary-lycanthropy

2)A Case of Lycanthropy- Rostenstock and Vincent

3)Canadian Psychiatric Association

4)British Journal of Psychiatry- Abstracts: Verdoux and Bourgeois

5)Modern Werewolf Cases from Scientific View Points

6)Psychology 401- ULM

7)Scientific American: Ask the Experts: Medicine

8)Fact Sheet: Facts on Schizophrenia

9)Citybeat- The Curse of the Werewolf

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