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Pamela Weintraub
Pamela Weintraub

Pastor killing: Another act of violence attributed to Lyme disease

Can Lyme disease make someone violent enough to open fire in a church?

Here's a quick post to supplement my story on the chimp attack in Connecticut, which some pundits attributed to a rage reaction caused by Lyme disease.

On the heels of the rage-filled chimp story comes a human version: This weekend a man opened fire on a pastor in a church in Maryville, Illinois, murdering him with a rain of gunfire. Here, too, the explanation for the attack has been given as psychiatric illness caused by Lyme disease. Infected by a tick on the family farm in the early 1990's, the young man was, his family said, left with lesions on his brain.

There's no question that Lyme disease is a neurological illness. It has been associated with neurological disease for decades in rigorous peer review in the top medical journals in the world

For a quick review of neurological Lyme disease and its psychiatric links, check out the blog posts:

part one, part two, part three, and a psychiatrist gets Lyme disease.

Lyme disease may certainly form brain lesions much like those seen in multiple scleroisis. These lesions are often reversible with antibiotic therapy, but are sometimes irreversible and seen in patient brain scans for life.

Can Lyme disease provoke rage? Many psychiatrists and doctors working in the trenches with some of the sickest patients say the answer is yes, as do reports in the peer review. But murderous violent crime is not the typical M.O. for a patient with Lyme. Mental illness exists apart from Lyme disease and even adverse reactions to antidepressants and other antipsychotic drugs could provoke outsized rage. Once psychiatric symptoms emerge from Lyme disease, outcomes may include everything from suicide due to physical pain and depression over the illness to severe adverse reactions to psychoactive drugs.

The most common signs and symptoms of neurological Lyme disease include neuropathies that involve buzzing and tingling, nerve pain, memory loss, confusion, and fatigue. Psychiatric problems like depression, anxiety, OCD, and ADD can be triggered by Lyme or other tick-borne infections, according to studies. Panic attacks, hallucinations, delusions, and extreme rage have all been reported in Lyme patients but compared to memory loss and confusion, these presentations are rare. A patient with severe neurological Lyme disease is far more likely to get lost on the road or have trouble reading than shoot up a Church.

While Lyme disease is not known for triggering killing sprees, the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) has issued a press release dismissing most presentations of neurological Lyme disease at all. "In some rare cases, people may have neurologic problems such as facial paralysis," the group concedes in its official statement on the situation, listing this single symptom and no others. The group cites a 95% cure rate for Lyme disease, failing to mention that the statistic refers only to early disease; that number has been called into question by some academic heavyweights due to new findings on Lyme strains. But more disturbing, the IDSA statement fails to mention the late-diagnosed Lyme cases --and due to flawed tests, these are plentiful-- that give rise to the lion's share of neurological forms of the disease.

What is especially misleading is that the IDSA statement fails to take note of the true mainstream authority on neurological Lyme disease, the American Academy of Neurology. That group, whose practice guidelines hold sway in mainstream circles on this painful and sometimes-devastating condition, says this:

If you or a family member have been told by a doctor that you have nervous system Lyme disease, regardless of age,age, your symptoms may include headache, facial nerve palsy (Bell’s palsy), and meningitis (swelling and pain in the membrane surrounding the brain). Rarely the brain or spinal cord may become inflamed, causing weakness or changes to the nerve impulses in parts of the body, or other symptoms. Patients with nervous system Lyme disease may also have one or more of these symptoms: radicular (sciatica-like nerve) pain, weakness or numbness due to nerve damage, or changes in cognitive function (thinking, reasoning, remembering, imagining).

Shame on you IDSA! In a situation where balance is required, extremism, including exaggeration or diminishment of a real situation, only muddies the waters and leaves everyone confused.

On Monday, March 9, the Associated Press reported that that attacker, Terry J. Sedlacek, 27, of Troy, was charged with two counts each of first-degree murder and aggravated battery, for gunning down the pastor and then stabbing himself and two worshippers who tried to tackle him down.

Pamela Weintraub is the author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic and senior editor at Discover Magazine.

About the Author
Pamela Weintraub

Pamela Weintraub is the Executive Editor at Discover magazine and author of Cure Unknown: Inside the Lyme Epidemic.

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