REHOVOT, Israel -- July 10, 1996 -- An intensive effort to shed light on Tourette syndrome -- the humiliating genetic disorder known for causing sufferers to twitch and swear repetitively -- brought six Yale University professors to Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science recently for a meeting of leading scientific minds.
The professors from Yale's Child Study Center met with about 130 scientists, neurologists and psychologists from Israel and Holland at a one-day symposium with the aim of encouraging basic research, such as that done at the Weizmann Institute, to merge with clinical research to find a cure for the condition, which is believed to affect up to one in 2,000 people worldwide.
It is the first time that Yale and the Institute have come together to work on Tourette syndrome, although they have a long-standing collaboration agreement which has sponsored other projects. Opening the symposium, Yale's Prof. Donald Cohen said Tourette syndrome was considered an exotic, bizarre disease from the time it was first identified 100 years ago until recently. He said it was only in the past decade that real progress had been made in understanding and controlling it with an explosion of new drugs and advances in understanding brain chemistry.
"Those of us working on Tourette syndrome felt this was a good time for reassessing the state of the field and outlining future new directions," Prof. Cohen said. "We hope that an event like today's will sharpen the focus of research and be a major turning point."
Tourette syndrome is a chronic genetic disorder characterized by bouts of motor and vocal tics -- repetitive, involuntary actions -- that first show up in childhood and grow progressively worse. Although it is best known for causing sufferers to swear uncontrollably, in fact only about 30 percent do so; most vocal tics merely comprise repetitive words or noises. The syndrome is about four times as common in men as in women, and is often accompanied by other conditions such as hyperactivity, obsessive-compulsive behavior and attention problems.
In an introductory overview, Yale's Prof. James Leckman said the latest understanding of the disorder had come from autopsies on Tourette sufferers which showed an imbalance in brain chemicals and a lack of development in one particular section of their brains: in a normal, right-handed adult, the left side of the brain was enlarged, but in a right-handed Tourette sufferer it was not, resembling the brain of a one-year-old child.
Greater understanding of these findings could be gained by performing imaging on the working brain, an area of research in which Weizmann Institute scientists have made important advances.
The Institute's Prof. Amiram Grinvald told the conference about insights into the workings of the brain provided by his optical imaging method, which makes it possible to observe actual brain functions with unprecedented resolution. Another promising new direction is in the study of brain chemicals, particularly dopamine and serotonin -- areas in which the Institute's Profs. Rabi Simantov and Menahem Segal have made prominent contributions.
Such research can help clarify whether pharmaceutical drugs merely suppress the symptoms of Tourette or actually affect the underlying disorder. The Weizmann Institute's Prof. Vivian Teichberg, who was one of the main organizers of the meeting, said it was hoped that creating greater awareness of the disorder among basic researchers would speed the development of a cure.
"Scientists working in their ivory towers of basic research can benefit very much from encounters with clinicians working at the beds of patients, while the clinicians can benefit from the knowledge that accumulates at the benches of scientists involved in basic research," Prof. Teichberg told the symposium. "If what we are doing here does contribute to a possible solution for sufferers of Tourette syndrome and their families, that will be the best reward."
The symposium was sponsored by the Yale-Weizmann endowment fund, Gate Pharmaceuticals, the US Tourette Syndrome Association and the Maurice and Gabriela Goldschleger Conference Foundation at the Weizmann Institute of Science. Prof. Grinvald holds the Helen and Norman Asher Chair of Brain Research; Prof. Segal, the Harry and Leona Levine Chair of Neurosciences; and Prof. Teichberg, the Louis and Florence Katz-Cohen Chair of Neuropharmacology.
The Weizmann Institute of Science is a major center of scientific research and graduate study located in Rehovot,Tour Israel.