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Walking Corpse Syndrome

Dawn of the Living Dead: Walking Corpse Syndrome

Walking Corpse Syndrome is a very rare delusional disorder. It makes the person believe that they have died. It is called Cotard’s syndrome in the medical world. Here are some real cases of Cotard’s syndrome reported across the world:

2011: A Japanese man thought he was dead and consulted physicians to find if his suspicion was true. He asked the doctors whether a dead man could show up for a medical examination. The primary care doctors were unable to persuade him that he is, in fact, still alive. His condition improved with psychotherapy and treatment, but he believed that he had been dead previously.

2010: In Manhattan, New York, a young man visited the hospital and complained that he had died several days ago but no one bothered to bury him. He was shifted to the psychiatry unit and psychologists diagnosed him with depression, anxiety and cotard’s syndrome.

2008: An old woman in Chelsea asked her children to take her to the morgue so that she can live peacefully with her fellow corpses. She not only said that she has died, but also believed that had begun to rot.

1996: A young man in Scotland survived a horrible car accident and was shifted to the hospital. He thought that the accident had proved fatal and he was dead. His mother moved him to South Africa that reinforced his delusion. He thought that he was punished and sent to hell, because “only hell can be this hot and miserable”.

These delusions are supported by illogical beliefs and internal inconsistency. One case in Manhattan was reported in which a woman believed that she could now eat endlessly because the dead cannot gain weight. Another case was reported in which a woman stopped eating since she thought that the dead do not eat.

How Did the Disease Get its Name?

The disease was named after a 19th-century French physician Jules Cotard. One of his patients “Mademoiselle X” believed that she was immortal and that her internal organs have deteriorated. She believed that she couldn’t eat anything anymore. During therapy, she denied eating and complained that she lacks internal organs.  She died due to malnutrition.

It is an interesting manifestation of the term “walking dead” since the Cotard’s patient believed that she has been immune to death.

Stages of Cotard’s Delusion

The families of the patients have reported that the diseases progress in three stages.

Germination- stage I

During the first stage, the patient becomes anxious and depressed.

Blooming- Stage II

The stage in which the person starts believing that they are dead.

Chronic phase-stage III

The final stage is when it becomes almost impossible to convince the patient that they are still alive and everything around them is real.

Symptoms of Cotard’s Disease

The classic symptom is nihilism ‘the belief that nothing in the world has any value or meaning,’ or that nothing in the world exists in reality. In some cases, the patient might believe that he never really existed.

Other common symptoms include;

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Hallucinations
  • Guilt

Risk Factors for Cotard’s Disease

There are some mental conditions that increase the risk of disease. These include:

  • Bipolar disorders
  • Catatonia
  • Personality disorders
  • Post-partum depression
  • Schizophrenia
  • Psychotic depression
  • Brain infection
  • Tumors
  • Dementia
  • Epilepsy
  • Migraine
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Traumatic brain injury

Treatment of Cotard’s Disease

Neurologists recommend electroconvulsive therapy for such patients. It involves exposing the patient to low-intensity electric shocks to create seizures in the brain. However, there are some potential risks associated with ECT and it is only considered after applying all other treatment options. Some common treatment options include:

  • Antidepressant drugs
  • antipsychotics
  • psychotherapy
  • mood therapy

Complications of Cotard’s Disease

Cotard’s disease has some serious complications. For instance, the patient may stop eating, bathing, or taking care of themselves. It can lead to social isolation for the patient. The patient may attempt suicide due to social pressure and depression. Some may do it to prove that they are dead, so they cannot die again. The cause of Cotard’s delusion is still a question to the medical community, and it continues to baffle medical professionals. It is mostly linked with Capgras delusion, in which the patient believes that the people around them have been replaced with imposters or they are not real anymore. It is thought to be caused by excessive neuronal firing in the area of the cerebral cortex that recognizes faces and personalities. The scientific community hopes that time will reveal the cause of ghostly disease and what makes a person believe that they are dead.  The good news is that antidepressants and antipsychotics have been proven beneficial, and psychotherapy makes the patient once again believe that they are alive.

– Disclaimer –
This blog is for informational & educational purposes only, and does not intend to substitute any professional medical advice or consultation. For any health related concerns, please consult with your physician, or call 911.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by Dr. Syra Hanif, M.D. on 08/02/2021

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  • About The Author

    Dr. Syra Hanif M.D.

    Board Certified Primary Care Physician

Dr. Syra Hanif is a board-certified Primary Care Physician (PCP) dedicated to providing compassionate, patient-centered healthcare.

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