Can people with Parkinson's disease see ghosts? New research reveals eerie truth

About half of those who have the disorder have 'presence hallucinations,' in which they perceive a dark presence nearby. Scientists have developed a method for reawakening the 'ghosts' hidden in the minds of Parkinson's patients to assess their mental health


                            Can people with Parkinson's disease see ghosts? New research reveals eerie truth
Parkinson's is the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disease worldwide (University of Sheffield)

A frontal-temporal disconnection has been discovered by scientists, which may explain why people with Parkinson's disease say they can see ghosts.

About half of those who have the disorder have 'presence hallucinations,' in which they perceive a dark presence nearby, the Daily Mail reported. The phenomenon has been difficult to research due to its random nature. But scientists in Switzerland have developed a method for reawakening the "ghosts" hidden in the minds of patients with Parkinson's disease —  the second most prevalent neurodegenerative disease worldwide — in order to assess their mental health.

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'Awakening ghosts'

"The system is actually quite simple," Professor Olaf Blanke of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology said to Reuters, according to Daily Mail. The scientists at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne published the research paper on April 28, 2021, according to Science Daily. As many as 56 Parkinson's patients from Switzerland and Spain participated in the study. 

"One robot is in front of the subject and will measure the movement, and the second robot will feedback signals to the individual that we're testing, Parkinson's patients or healthy subject, and then when we induce a mis-match, so if the front robot is doing something else from the back robot, this is the condition when the 'presence hallucination' occurs," he explained. Simply put, Blanke's process uses robots to provoke the onset of 'presence hallucinations', which is a feeling that somebody is behind you when there’s actually no one there.

'I call them my guardian angels'

"I call them my guardian angels. They do me no harm. They follow me around. It's reassuring in a way, because I am not alone," said Joseph Ray, who had a career in tourism and has never been bothered by the hallucinations, according to Science Daily.

Minor hallucinations often precede other Parkinson's symptoms including tremors and muscle rigidity. As the disease progresses, people who have more serious hallucinations are more likely to experience cognitive decline, the report said. Although the condition is typically thought of as a movement disorder, some patients experience mental symptoms such as psychosis, depression, cognitive impairment, and even dementia.

The "brain stress test," also known as the "robot ghost test" or "hallucination stress test," was conducted on 26 Parkinson's disease patients. 

"When I had no control over the robot touching my back, I felt a presence, like there was somebody with me, touching my back," says Rey, who was one of the 26, to the news outlet. "It is not quite the same presence as my guardian angels. I feel the presence of my angels, but I never know when they will appear, and my angels have never touched me."

(Courtesy: Medical Dialogues)

'Spiders falling from the ceiling'

Since 2015, Maurizio De Levrano, a lighting designer based in Martigny who specializes in industrial, public, and luxury lighting, has been living with Parkinson's disease. He has hallucinations as well.

"It happens when I am alone, cooking or sitting at the table. I see spiders of sorts falling from the ceiling out of the corner of my eye. I know very well that they are not there, but instinctively, I am always compelled to turn and look. I've also felt a presence behind me. It felt like the ghost of my mother," he said to the news outlet.

Parkinson's disease, according to De Levrano, is like a dark tunnel that gets longer and longer as the illness progresses. "My father has Parkinson's disease", he said, adding that he heard from a nurse that the man felt sorry and responsible that his son also had it. "So I went to him, and I told him not to be sorry. The disease has been one of the biggest gifts of my life," he said.

"I used to be macho. Before, I would have never been able to understand someone else's pain. Being ill has been very humbling. I am a better person because of Parkinson's, because of the obstacles that arise from my own body and nervous system, and that is why I am driven to participate in research like this," he explained.

Quantifying occurrences

"We're developing something similar to a cardiac stress test, but instead of testing the heart, we're testing the brain," said Blanke according to Science Daily. 

Fosco Bernasconi, the co-first author of the paper, said: "An important challenge with hallucinations is that they occur spontaneously, that their occurrence cannot be predicted, that many patients may not openly report them, possibly out of fear, and that it is currently very challenging for physicians to quantify their occurrence, phenomenology and intensity."

Such is the eerie truth of Parkinson's disease, which ordinarily begins in middle age or later in life after 60, and is rare in younger adults. But with advancements in science and medicine, things are looking hopeful it won't always have to be.

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