Convinced He’s Dead: New Scientist’s Interview with a Cotard’s Syndrome Patient

Character with Cotard’s syndrome from Hannibal

In April of this year, New Scientist website started a new column about funky brain problems called Mindscapes. The first article deals with a patient from the UK suffering from Cotard’s syndrome — the persistent belief that your body or parts of your body are dead.

Cotard’s syndrome (also called Cotard’s delusion or walking corpse syndrome) was featured in a couple of memorable Hannibal episodes. (Picture from Episode 9) I originally thought it was a fictional diagnosis like “pure empathy” (the problem with protagonist Will Graham) but Cotard’s really exists.  Whenever you feel as if you are having a sucky life, look at someone suffering with Cotard’s syndrome and suddenly you’ll feel better about yourself.

The patient interviewed, known only as Graham (nothing to do with fictional character Will Graham) woke up one day and was convinced his brain had died.  He saw no point in doing anything.  Food had no taste.  He lost the ability to smell.  He stopped brushing his teeth and they all turned black.  He led a “joyless existence.”  The good news is that he quit smoking because he could not longer get any relief from tobacco.

It took years of treatments, but now Graham is able to do chores about the house and has found some interests again.

Things you need to know about Cotard’s syndrome:

  • It’s extremely rare
  • No one knows what causes it
  • It tends to appear in conjunction with other mental illnesses such as major depression
  • This is often fatal because patients will no longer eat or will drench themselves in boric acid
  • There is no cure
  • Current treatments include electroconvulsive therapy, psychotherapy and anti-psychotic medications
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