Lyme disease can't make a person violent or psychotic,
infectious disease specialists tell WebMD.
According to media reports, the family and lawyer of a man accused of the
murder of an Illinois pastor blame the man's deteriorating mental health on
longstanding Lyme disease.
The experts who spoke with WebMD have not reviewed the man's medical records
and are familiar with the case only through media reports. But speaking in
general terms, the experts reject the idea that violent behavior can be blamed
on Lyme disease.
"I don't know of any convincing evidence that Lyme disease can cause
violence or psychosis," Gary Wormser, MD, tells WebMD. Wormser is director
of the Lyme Disease Center and chief of infectious diseases at New York Medical
College in Valhalla, N.Y.
"We can be clear Lyme disease does not lead to psychotic and violent
behaviors," William Schaffner, MD, tells WebMD. Schaffner is
president-elect of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and chair of
preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University in
In an August 2008 article -- written before the alleged attack by Terry J.
Sedlacek -- the St. Louis Post-Dispatch chronicled the man's
decade-long mental health problems. The article suggested his symptoms were due
to Lyme disease.
But such "chronic" Lyme disease is "not a sound diagnosis"
for anyone, Schaffner says. Untreated Lyme disease certainly can go on for a
very long time. And Lyme disease damage doesn't necessarily go away with
treatment. But Schaffner says there is little evidence that prolonged
antibiotic therapy -- or other radical, unproven treatments -- benefits
"The history I've gleaned from the news reports suggests this man was
being treated for supposed chronic Lyme disease, a diagnosis that needs to be
looked at with great skepticism," Schaffner says. "If this was a
misfocused attention on Lyme disease, his real underlying problem was not given
attention and therapy. Because Lyme disease, in whatever manifestation, does
not lead to violent and psychotic behavior."
Wormser has actually looked for Lyme disease in Missouri, near the Illinois
border where the man was supposed to have contracted the disease.
"In that part of Illinois, that this person lived in, it would be almost
unheard of to have true Lyme disease," he says. "But so many people get
misdiagnosed because of doctors sending samples to labs that give unreliable
results. I would not be surprised if this individual were
But even if the man did have Lyme disease, the evidence suggests it could
not have been responsible for his recent behavior.
Wormser actually tested psychiatric inpatients in his area, which is in the
heart of the U.S. region most affected by Lyme disease. Patients suffering
psychiatric illnesses were no more likely to have present or past Lyme disease
than other area residents.
That's not to say that Lyme disease can't affect the brain. It can.
"Like most manifestations of this disease, neurological symptoms are
hard to recognize and manage," Schaffner says. "You can have an
encephalitis picture that almost always occurs with damage to one of the nerves
to the face. This causes paralysis of part of the face. These are part of the
later manifestations of Lyme disease."
"There is no question that Lyme disease has neurological
manifestations," Wormser says. "But frank psychosis to the point of
killing someone would be really far fetched. It is really clear they are
dealing with a situation that probably wasn't Lyme disease to begin
By Daniel DeNoon
Reviewed by Louise Chang
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