Chronic Itch | St. Louis Public Radio

Chronic Itch

In 1962, laughter epidemic afflicted several communities for more than two years in present-day Tanzania.
Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

In 1962, a strange epidemic swept through several communities in Tanganyika, present-day Tanzania. It wasn’t a virus, but laughter among teenage schoolgirls. The contagious laughter, which lasted for about two and a half years, afflicted about 1,000 people and forced at least 14 schools to temporarily shut down.

Experts later determined that the origin of the epidemic was psychological, perhaps related to stress caused by the presence of British colonialism. But such events have raised scientific questions about why humans can’t control behaviors such as laughing, yawning, coughing and shivering — and why they spread among groups of people.

“We are a part of a human herd whose behavior is often the involuntary playing out of an ancient neurological script that is so familiar that it goes unnoticed,” wrote neuroscientist Robert Provine in his book, "Curious Behavior."

Robert Boston | Washington University School of Medicine

Dermatologist Brian Kim has seen many patients who can't seem to stop itching. Often, it's difficult to determine what's causes the irritation, which can make deciding a course of treatment challenging.

"Most of the drugs I use only work a small minority of the time, so we have to be patient," said Kim, co-director of Washington University's Center for the Study of Itch. "But as you can imagine, as a patient, when you fail with three different medications, it can be incredibly frustrating."