Vol. 5, No. 2, 1999 Page 5

Controversial cases in court

An unusual defense: Lyme-caused crime?

In 1996, seventeen-year-old Michael Griffon knocked on the door of a stranger. When the man opened his door, Griffon attacked him with an ax. The victim drove his attacker off, and police later located Griffon hiding in the closet of his own house with a knife.

The crime was somewhat unusual, but Griffon’s defense is far stranger: he claims that he was mentally impaired by late-stage Lyme disease.

Brian Fallon, a Lyme disease expert at the New York Psychiatric Institute, has confirmed Griffon’s diagnosis, and says, “In certain circumstances, [Lyme] causes normal inhibitions to stop working and violent behavior to occur. It can cause someone to deve elop full-blown mania.”

Griffon’s acquaintances say that he was happy, athletic, and studious before contracting Lyme disease, but afterward developed problems including insomnia, weight gain, and an explosive temper. Since the crime he has been treated with antibiotics, and has s returned to school. His attorney says he now has no behavioral problems.

The medical literature includes reports of a number of cases in which patients with late-stage Lyme became dangerous to themselves or others. “Common psychiatric symptoms are irritability, panic attacks, depression, suicidal thoughts, fluctuating moods, a and depersonalization,” Fallon says. “Less common are mania, paranoia, obsessions, compulsions, and occasionally a disorder that resembles schizophrenia.” Several of Fallon’s Lyme patients have become violent, including a woman who stopped treatment due t to side effects and developed severe depression, hallucinations, manic episodes, and paranoid delusions. The woman became violent, Fallon reports, “slapping her son repeatedly and breaking furniture.” Another of Fallon’s patients exhibited mania, panic at ttacks, paranoia, verbal aggression, violent impulses, irritability, and hallucinations.

“At first Lyme disease was thought to be mainly an arthritic illness,” Fallon says, “but it has become clear that some of its most serious symptoms are neurological and psychiatric.” However, while 13,000 Americans are diagnosed each year with Lyme diseas se, only a minority develop serious neurological symptoms-and only a small minority of those become violent.


“Ax attacker using Lyme disease as defense case intensifies debate over ailment’s effects on the brain,” Jane E. Dee, Hartford Courant, January 17, 1999.


“Late-stage neuropsychiatric lyme borreliosis: differential diagnosis and treatment,” B. Fallon, M. Schwartzberg, R. Bransfield, B. Zimmerman, A. Scotti, C. Webber, and M. Liebowitz, Psychosomatics, Vol. 36, 1995, pp. 295-300; and “What is the sign nificance of Lyme disease for mental health?”, B. Fallon, Harvard Mental Health Letter, Vol. 12, No. 4, October 1995, p. 8. Address: Brian A. Fallon, New York Psychiatric Institute, 722 West 168th Street, New York, NY 10032.

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