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Medical mysteries, bizarre cases

New book chronicles rare and odd ailments of human body, mind

By Amy Cox

Nancy Butcher's new book describes some of the more strange and rare diseases in humans.
Nancy Butcher's new book describes some of the more strange and rare diseases in humans.

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(CNN) -- Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome, wandering spleen.

They might sound like the names of the latest rock bands, but they're actually extremely rare and bizarre diseases and disorders that few people even know exist.

Author Nancy Butcher explores these and other odd ailments in "The Strange Case of the Walking Corpse," a new book chronicling some of the most strange and disturbing cases of what can go wrong with the human body and mind.

"I think like a lot of people, I've always been interested in really, really strange diseases." Butcher said. "I thought about becoming a doctor myself but decided it was too real and gruesome for me. But I've always been fascinated by weird symptoms and peculiar things people do to cure themselves or others."

Butcher said she had been collecting tales of strange medical mysteries for years, but the disorder the book is named after is what really spurred her to organize her research.

Dr. Jules Cotard is credited with first describing, in the late 1800s, the "walking corpse" psychiatric disorder. In this, deluded patients think they have lost body parts or their souls, and often believe they have died. Also called Cotard's syndrome, the mental disease has been found in people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

Another bizarre mental disorder Butcher describes is the Alice-in-Wonderland syndrome, in which a patient's sense of time, space and body image are distorted. People may appear tiny or patients may feel that part of their body shape or size has been altered.

Being extremely startled by an unexpected noise or sight is the main characteristic of the disorder with the peculiar name of Jumping Frenchmen of Maine.

It's not just bolting when someone sneaks up behind you, explains Butcher. Patients with the disorder flail their arms, cry out and repeat words. First identified in some of Maine's lumberjacks of French-Canadian origin, the odd reflex has been identified in other parts of the world, too.

Butcher said strange and gruesome elements have always fascinated people. Reading or watching TV shows on these topics can satisfy curiosity at a safe distance from the actual horrors of disease.

"I think a little bit of smugness is involved. There's this feeling of 'These people have these horrible conditions and I don't,'" she said. "It's like watching a car wreck. It's gross and disgusting but it's not happening to you.

"And the extremes -- the really gross diseases, the really disgusting sores ... it's the same as the fascination with crazy freak shows on TV: they're grossly compelling."

Although the book is full of strange medical minutiae and odd cases, Butcher said she didn't want to trivialize the people who have these disorders.

"I never want anyone who has any of these diseases to look at this and think they're being made fun of," she said. "There is a certain freakish, fascinating, and even funny aspect to the diseases, but for the most part, they're not. They are just fascinating because they're so rare, they're so extreme and the symptoms are nothing like anybody's ever heard before."

But sometimes the rare and unusual make headlines. The deadly Ebola virus was a relatively unknown disease until an outbreak in parts of Africa in the 1990s. And the uncommon mad cow disease in humans -- formally known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease -- is practically a household word.

Advances in medicine and biotechnology are sure to keep bringing intriguing advances and strange conditions to the fore, Butcher said.

Teeth grown in a petri dish from stem cells may someday replace dentures and implants, Butcher writes. And scientists are studying natural limb regeneration for humans, trying to copy the salamander's ability. Even the blood moving through our bodies may one day be generated artificially.

"So I think the future looks as equally fascinating and disgusting as the past," she said.

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