SciELO - Scientific Electronic Library Online

vol.73 issue12Clinical and genetic basis of familial amyotrophic lateral sclerosisFurious Frederich: Nietzsche’s neurosyphilis diagnosis and new hypotheses author indexsubject indexarticles search
Home Pagealphabetic serial listing  

Services on Demand




Related links


Arquivos de Neuro-Psiquiatria

Print version ISSN 0004-282XOn-line version ISSN 1678-4227

Arq. Neuro-Psiquiatr. vol.73 no.12 São Paulo Dec. 2015  Epub Oct 06, 2015 


Tourette's syndrome in famous musicians

A síndrome de Tourette em músicos famosos

Carlos Henrique F. Camargo1 

Augusto Bronzini1 

1Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa, Hospital Universitário, Departamento de Medicina, Serviço de Neurologia, Ponta Grossa PR, Brazil.


Tourette's syndrome (TS) is defined as a disorder characterized by multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic that have lasted for not less than one year. It is a relatively complex neurobehavioral disorder, in which patients may present with coexistent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder or other behavioral comorbidities. The musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and the rock star Kurt Cobain (1967-1994) may both have suffered from TS, and some contemporary musicians have had their clinical condition confirmed as TS. Our hypothetical diagnosis of TS in Mozart and Cobain is based on the presence of tics and psychiatric comorbidities. In contemporary musicians, such as Michael Wolff, Nick Van Bloss and James Durbin, TS has often only been diagnosed after a considerable delay. This delay in diagnosis and the controversies surrounding the clinical case of Mozart show how difficult a confirmatory diagnosis of this complex disease is.

Key words: Tourette's syndrome; tics; movement disorder; depression


A síndrome de Tourette (TS) é definida como uma desordem caracterizada por múltiplos tiques motores e pelo menos um tique vocal com duração de ao menos um ano. TS é um distúrbio neuro-comportamental relativamente complexo, em que os pacientes teriam coexistente transtorno de déficit de atenção e hiperatividade, transtorno obsessivo-compulsivo, distúrbio de comportamento ou outras co-morbidades. Talvez sejam casos de TS o do gênio musical Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) e da estrela do rock, Kurt Cobain (1967-1994). Alguns músicos contemporâneos tiveram a sua condição clínica confirmada como TS. Em conclusão, os diagnósticos hipotéticos de TS nos casos de Mozart e Cobain podem ter embasamento na possibilidade de tiques e comorbidades psiquiátricas. Observou-se um atraso de diagnóstico de TS em músicos contemporâneos (Michael Wolff, Nick Van Bloss, James Durbin). Essa situação e as controvérsias sobre a clínica no caso de Mozart mostram a dificuldade para confirmação do diagnóstico dessa complexa doença.

Palavras-Chave: síndrome de Tourette; tiques; distúrbios do movimento; depressão

In 1885 Gilles de la Tourette published his masterpiece Étude sur une affection nerveuse caractérisée par de l'incoordination motrice, acompagnée d'écholalie et de coprolalie . This work characterized in great detail nine cases of patients with tics (although this term was not used by Gilles de la Tourette), of which the first was described by Jean Marc Gaspard Itard in 1825 (the Marquise of Dampierre) and the second by Trousseau. After Gilles de la Tourette's article was published, Charcot named the disease “Gilles de la Tourette syndrome” (TS)1. TS is defined as a disorder characterized by multiple motor tics and at least one vocal tic that have lasted for not less than one year2. It is a complex neurobehavioral disorder in which patients may present with coexistent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and other behavioral comorbidities3.

The possibility of a diagnosis of TS has been investigated for many famous personalities. Examples of possible cases of TS are the musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)4 and the rock star Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)5. Some contemporary musicians (Michael Wolff, Nick Van Bloss, James Durbin) have had their clinical condition confirmed as TS (Figure)6,7,8.

Figure Taken from the Internet. (A) Mozart; (B) Cobain; (C) Wolff; (D) Van Bloss; (E) Durbin.. Famous musicians with possible Tourette's syndrome. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

The possibility that Mozart may have had TS was raised at the 1983 World Congress of Psychiatry in Vienna. According to Simkin, the accumulated evidence supports the proposition that Mozart fulfilled the current criteria for TS4. Mozart's inadvertent repetitive movements of his face, hands and feet have been regarded by some as phonic and motor tics and used to support a diagnosis of TS4,9. In addition, he made excessive use of obscene words in his letters, which frequently contained anal vulgarities and words related to defecation, suggesting the presence of coprographia4. A further example of a propensity toward obscene language (coprolalia) is Mozart's canon Lick my ass9. Although coprolalia is a characteristic feature of TS, this language abnormality is not universally present in or specific to TS3,9. Indeed, some researchers believe that the scatological features exhibited by Mozart may merely represent what was considered an acceptable style of speech in southern Germany at that time9.

Mozart had peculiar behavior and exhibited features that strongly suggest that he suffered obsessions with objects, thoughts and repetition of certain things4,9. He also had frequent sudden mood swings from depression to elevated or expansive moods without any obvious cause, suggesting bipolar disorder. Various elements of his behavior suggest that he may have suffered from ADHD9.

Kurt Cobain (1967-1994)

The year 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of the suicide of the composer and lead singer in the Nirvana rock band, Kurt Cobain5. Since his preschool days he displayed intelligence and creativity but had considerable difficulty paying attention. He was diagnosed with ADHD and given methylphenidate to treat the condition5. He performed very badly at school and became involved with alcohol and illicit drugs from an early age5.

Cobain collected a variety of objects. He recorded his thoughts in diaries, which acted as therapy for his OCD5. His writing was creative as well as disturbing, revealing an obsession with bodily functions, and his diary entries reflect his great self-contempt, clearly showing that he always felt he was “defective”, “evil” and “sick” and repeatedly had suicidal thoughts5.

As in Mozart's letters4, subjects such as excrement and sexuality were constant themes in his diary and in the lyrics of his own songs. However, the many obscenities in his music are very probably more related to the rebellious style of his musical genre than to coprographia. During his artistic career he also wrote lyrics for songs such as Tourette and Lithium . On several occasions, Cobain confirmed that some of his songs had an autobiographical element to them5.

Between the ages of nine and ten years, Cobain experienced involuntary contractions of both eyes5, and during his interviews, when he is always agitated, insecure and smoking heavily, some simple motor and vocal tics can be observed10. Unfortunately, there are no reports by physicians about the frequency of these movements. As Cobain used several drugs and medicines5, these may also have caused or exacerbated his tics, making it difficult to determine whether these movements were secondary, idiopathic or associated with possible TS3.

Michael Wolff (1952- ), Nick Van Bloss (1967- ), James Durbin (1989- )

Michael Wolff is an American jazz pianist and composer who has had TS since childhood but was only diagnosed with the condition a few years ago. He is the chairman of the Tourette Syndrome Association (TSA) and co-produced The Tic Code (1999), a film about a single mother and her young son (a jazz piano prodigy), both of whom have TS6.

Nick Van Bloss, an English concert pianist, suddenly developed severe motor and vocal tics at the age of seven and was finally correctly diagnosed with TS when he was twenty-one7.

James Durbin won fourth place on “American Idol” in 2011. When he was nine years old, shortly after his father's death, he was diagnosed with TS and Asperger's syndrome. With time, his facial and vocal tics have become more manageable8.


This study has discussed the clinical conditions of some famous musicians with a view to providing a better understanding of motor and behavioral changes in TS patients. Of particular note is the difficulty involved in diagnosing TS and the long time the musicians discussed here suffered from the disease before it was correctly diagnosed and treatment was started. In the cases of Mozart and Kobain we can only hypothesize that they had TS. However, the historical data provide substantial evidence for this diagnosis and allow the consequences of the disease in their lives to be identified.

Much of the genius and creativity of these great artists may have been related to changes in neurological functions. We hope that this short report will be the first of further more in-depth studies on the pathophysiology and clinical presentation of TS and the relationship between this condition and gifted musicians.


1. Teive HA, Chien HF, Munhoz RP, Barbosa ER. Charcot's contribution to the study of Tourette's syndrome. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2008;66(4):918-21. doi:10.1590/S0004-282X2008000600035 [ Links ]

2. American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, text revision (DSM-IV-TR). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association Press; 2000. [ Links ]

3. Teive HA, Germiniani FM, Della Coletta MV, Werneck LC. Tics and Tourette syndrome: clinical evaluation of 44 cases. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2001;59(3B):725-8. doi:10.1590/S0004-282X2001000500014. [ Links ]

4. Simkin B. Mozart's scatological disorder. BMJ. 1992;305(6868):1563-7. doi:10.1136/bmj.305.6868.1563 [ Links ]

5. Cross CR. Mais pesado que o céu: uma biografia de Kurt Cobain. São Paulo: Globo; 2002. [ Links ]

6. Tourrete Association of America [homepage]. Bayside: Tourette Association of America Inc.; c2007-15 [cited 2015 Apr 2015]. Avaliable from: [ Links ]

7. Nick van Bloss on living with Tourette's syndrome. The Independent. 2005 Apr 2006 [cited 2015 Apr 9];Health News. Avaliable from: [ Links ]

8. Wetpaint. American Idol. How James Durbin overcame tourettes and aspergers to steal the show on American Idol. [cited 2015 Apr 9]. Avaliable from: [ Links ]

9. Ashoori A, Jankovic J. Mozart's movements and behaviour: a case of Tourette's syndrome? J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2007;78(11):1171-5. doi:10.1136/jnnp.2007.114520 [ Links ]

10. Kurt Cobain [interview]. MTV Brasil. 1993 [cited 2015 Apr 9]. Available from: Interview by Zeca Camargo. [ Links ]

Received: April 27, 2015; Revised: June 23, 2015; Accepted: July 14, 2015

Correspondence: Carlos Henrique Ferreira Camargo; Hospital Universitário / Universidade Estadual de Ponta Grossa; Al Nabuco de Araújo, 601; 84031-510 Ponta Grossa PR, Brasil; E-mail:

Conflict of interest: There is no conflict of interest to declare.

Creative Commons License This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License, which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.