This Mysterious Condition Makes People Laugh Even When Nothing Is Funny

Experts reveal what you need to know about PseudoBulbar Affect, or PBA, a rare medical condition that can cause uncontrollable crying and/or laughing.

child laughingCookie Studio/ShutterstockA good cry can do wonders for the body and mind. Same with a good laugh. But what if you had no control over whether you laughed or cried? That’s what it’s like for people with pseudobulbar affect (or PBA), a condition that causes uncontrollable crying and/or laughing. It affects an estimated two million Americans and potentially another seven million Americans who have PBA-like symptoms, according to PBAinfo.org.

What is PBA?

PBA is a pattern of behavior where your emotions “swing wildly and randomly,” explains Kevin Gaffney, MD, neurologist at Mischer Neuroscience Associates and Stroke Medical Director at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital in The Woodlands, Texas. To an observer, it might look like someone sitting quietly who suddenly starts laughing or crying hysterically for either no good reason. Or, it may be that the person starts laughing for what seems to be the opposite of a good reason (laughing at a sad commercial on TV—watch a video of PBA to see this dynamic in action).

People who have PBA may not even realize they’re laughing or crying, or if they do, they may not understand why, says Fiona Gupta, MD, New Jersey-based neurologist at Hackensack University Medical Center who works with many people suffering from PBA. PBA causes distress for both the person with the condition and for those observing it while it happens, says Dr. Gupta. This can be frequently, continuously, and/or in clusters, she adds.

The observers

Observers tend to be caregivers, Dr. Gupta notes, because those who have PBA almost always have an underlying brain condition. There are a large number of diseases that can lead to PBA, says Dr. Gaffney, including stroke, multiple sclerosis, and ALS, all of which tend to be more common in the elderly population—and yes, PBA is most often seen in the elderly.

But it turns up in younger people to: PBA can be the result of a traumatic brain injury or a brain tumor, either of which can strike at any age. Generally, what’s happening is that the illness or condition affects the frontal lobe of the brain. It impairs the ability to suppress emotions or to express emotions in appropriate ways at appropriate times.

Diagnosis and treatment

PBA can be very debilitating, particularly before it’s diagnosed, Dr. Gupta says. Those suffering from it may be thought to be depressed or manic, and before a diagnosis is made, there is a “constellation of puzzle pieces” that a neurologist must put together, including the patient’s primary condition and their previous medical history.

PBA treatment can only target symptoms, explains Dr. Gupta. There is no cure. Symptom management requires a multidisciplinary approach, including physical therapy, exercise, and sometimes a drug called Nuedexta, whose active ingredient is dextromethorphan, the same one found in cough suppressants. “It suppresses other brain activities [besides coughing],” explains Dr. Gaffney. “But it’s broken down by the body too quickly to work for PBA, so a drug called quinidine is added solely to prevent the dextromethorphan from breaking down too quickly,” he adds. Sometimes low doses of antidepressants can help as well. Learn about what other conditions anti-depressants can treat besides depression.

What’s most important is awareness, say experts, because the condition can be terribly isolating. Educating the caregiver and the community goes a long way, says Dr. Gupta, so that the patients and their caregivers won’t feel so alone. Here’s what you need to know when you find yourself in the role of caregiver.

Sources
  • PBAInfo.org: “What is PseudoBulbar Affect (PBA)?”
  • Kevin Gaffney, MD, neurologist at Mischer Neuroscience Associates and Stroke Medical Director at Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Hospital in The Woodlands, Texas
  • Fiona Gupta, MD, New Jersey-based neurologist at Hackensack University Medical Center

Lauren Cahn
Lauren Cahn is a New York-based writer whose work has appeared regularly on Reader's Digest, The Huffington Post, and a variety of other publications since 2008. She covers health, fitness, yoga, and lifestyle, among other topics. An author of crime fiction, Lauren's book The Trust Game, was short-listed for the 2017 CLUE Award for emerging talent in the genre of suspense fiction.