Voodoo Death Is Brain's Lethal Response to Fear

Article excerpt

SAN DIEGO -- Voodoo death--or sudden death brought about by emotional shock--is a confirmed phenomenon, and the reason it occurs is no longer a mystery, Dr. Martin Samuels said at the annual meeting of the Association of Medicine and Psychiatry.

A specific area of the brain has been mapped that is able to send signals affecting heart rate, and a distinct lesion has been identified, he said.

In addition, several studies have looked at large natural disasters, such as earthquakes, to see whether excess unexplained death associated with the fear they cause had occurred. Those studies have found excess deaths and evidence of cardiac abnormalities. In one study, researchers collected Holter monitor data from patients in Greece after a 1984 earthquake. The data showed a fourfold increase in arrhythmias that lasted for 5 days after the earthquake.

In general, although death can occur immediately, the investigations of natural disasters have suggested that the excess deaths peak at about 6 days after the disaster, said Dr. Samuels, a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, Boston. This may suggest two different types, he added.

Those events are not to be mistaken for myocardial infarctions that may be related to stress; this is a distinct entity, Dr. Samuels cautioned.

The first neurologist to conduct a systematic study of voodoo death was Dr. Walter B. Cannon of Harvard University, who published a seminal paper in 1942. For the study. Dr. Cannon, who was interested in the physiology of shock, collected descriptions of the use of the "pointing bone," a shamanistic practice of the Australian aborigines used to punish serious tribal transgressions. The bone was capital punishment. When a shaman pointed the bone at a tribe member, this person died, sometimes immediately, sometimes over the course of a few days.

According to the descriptions, it was very efficient.

Dr. …