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Research paper
The role of alexithymia in the development of functional motor symptoms (conversion disorder)
  1. Benedetta Demartini1,2,
  2. Panayiota Petrochilos3,
  3. Lucia Ricciardi1,4,
  4. Gary Price3,
  5. Mark J Edwards1,
  6. Eileen Joyce1
  1. 1The Sobell Department of Motor Neuroscience and Movement Disorders, UCL Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London, UK
  2. 2Department of Psychiatry, San Paolo Hospital and University of Milan, Milan, Italy
  3. 3Department of Neuropsychiatry, The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Queen Square, London, UK
  4. 4Department of Clinical and Experimental Medicine, University of Messina, Messina, Italy
  1. Correspondence to Professor Eileen Joyce, Sobell Department, UCL Institute of Neurology, Queen Square, London WC1N 3BG, UK; e.joyce{at}


Background The mechanisms leading to the development of functional motor symptoms (FMS) are of pathophysiological and clinical relevance, yet are poorly understood.

Aim The aim of the present study was to evaluate whether impaired emotional processing at the cognitive level (alexithymia) is present in patients affected by FMS. We conducted a cross-sectional study in a population of patients with FMS and in two control groups (patients with organic movement disorders (OMD) and healthy volunteers).

Methods 55 patients with FMS, 33 patients affected by OMD and 34 healthy volunteers were recruited. The assessment included the 20-item Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20), the Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale, the Reading the Mind in the Eyes’ Test and the Structured Clinical Interview for Personality Disorders.

Results Alexithymia was present in 34.5% of patients with FMS, 9.1% with OMD and 5.9% of the healthy volunteers, which was significantly higher in the FMS group (χ2 (2)=14.129, p<0.001), even after controlling for the severity of symptoms of depression. Group differences in mean scores were observed on both the difficulty identifying feelings and difficulty describing feelings dimensions of the TAS-20, whereas the externally orientated thinking subscale score was similar across the three groups. Regarding personality disorder, χ2 analysis showed a significantly higher prominence of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD) in the FMS group (χ2 (2)=16.217, p<0.001) and 71.4% of those with OCPD also reached threshold criteria for alexithymia.

Conclusions Because alexithymia is a mental state denoting the inability to identify emotions at a cognitive level, one hypothesis is that some patients misattribute autonomic symptoms of anxiety, for example, tremor, paraesthesiae, paralysis, to that of a physical illness. Further work is required to understand the contribution of OCPD to the development of FMS.


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