What, precisely, is the Alice in Wonderland syndrome?

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fairy tale that is beyond comparison in its implausible scenarios and outlandish characters. It intrigues and fascinates in equal measure, and it has held generations of children and adults spellbound since its publication in 1865. The fantasy is as fanciful as Lewis Carroll, the pseudonym of the author Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

Alice in Wonderland. -JvL- on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/-jvl-/6075178802

As outrageous and as preposterous as it is, the book actually confirms the truism that most works of fiction are grounded in hard reality. In their excellent article, Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: A Historical and Medical Review, Osman Farooq and Edward Fine demonstrated that Alice’s adventures are not a figment of the author’s imagination, but the depiction of his real-life illusory experiences. Lewis Carroll suffered from migraine, and Alice was a perfect incarnation of the visual distortions that accompany this very common and debilitating disorder. Therefore, when lay people read that Alice’s body “had grown too tall or too small”, the stoney-eyed neuroscientists only see macropsia and micropsia, objects appearing larger or smaller than they actually are. When ordinary folks read that “parts of her body were changing shape, size, or relationship to the rest of her body”, the neurologist just sighs and yawns…migraine auras again! What spoilsports they are!

Alice. Danny Pig on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/dannypigart/114365270

Large and small of course bring to mind another great work of fantastic fiction, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. His Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian hallucinations are in another scale altogether, but did Swift also suffer from migraine? He probably did because the list of artists with probable migraine is fairy long (please don’t miss the intended pun). Some neuroscientist will however pour cold water on the idea that migraineurs are blessed with any creative impulses. Indeed it is not universally accepted that Lewis Crroll suffered from migraine auras. And just when you thought your migraines were worth the suffering! You may read more about art-disease relationships in this excellent article titled Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: A Clinical and Pathophysiological Review.

By Louis Rheadhttp://www.childrensbooksonline.org/Gullivers_Travels/index.htm, Public Domain, Link

But we mustn’t be distracted or derailed from the theme of today, Alice in Wonderland syndrome (AIWS). This fascinating disorder, and a disorder it is according to neurologists, puts us in a circular situation: fiction first mimicked fact to produce Alice, and fact then imitated fiction to produce a real ailment. I know, it all sounds absurd. But what did you expect with this theme!

By RodwOwn work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

What then is the cause of these illusory experiences that literally blow the mind? Yung-Ting Kuo and colleagues attribute it all to reduction in blood flow to the visual centers in the brain. And how many disorders may do this? Because this is neurology we are talking about…almost anything. The common culprits however are migraine, epilepsy, LSD, an assortment of  intoxicants, and a menagerie of brain infections. The syndrome has also been reported in a host of psychiatric and organic brain disorders such as Cotard syndrome, Capgras syndrome, depression, and schizophrenia. More worrying however is the association of the syndrome with prescription medications. One such drug is Topiramate, a medicine neurologists prescribe to prevent, among other conditions, migraine! And another, Aripiprazole, is paradoxically an excellent treatment for…hallucinations!

By Polygon data were generated by Database Center for Life Science(DBCLS)[2]. – Polygon data are from BodyParts3D[1]., CC BY-SA 2.1 jp, Link

As bizarre as Alice’s adventures are, Alice in Wonderland syndrome goes much farther: people with the syndrome experience a wider variety of even more grotesque illusory experiences than Lewis Carroll ever imagined. A recent paper in the journal, Neurology Clinical Practice, shows just how grotesque. Titled Clinical Characteristics of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome in a Cohort with Vestibular Migraine, the authors provide an almost endless list of unusual clinical manifestations of AIWS. The prize must however go the illusion that the brain is coming out of the head! There you go Lewis Carroll, you may eat your mad hat: fact will always be stranger than fiction!

Uh-oh. Josh Connell on Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/yhsoj/4636850643/