Neurodevelopmental versus functional tics: A controlled study

J Neurol Sci. 2023 Aug 15:451:120725. doi: 10.1016/j.jns.2023.120725. Epub 2023 Jun 29.


Background: An unprecedented increase in newly developed functional tics, mainly in young females, has been reported during the COVID-19 pandemic. We set out to complement existing case series with the largest controlled study to date on the clinical phenomenology of functional tics versus neurodevelopmental tics.

Methods: Data from 166 patients were collected at a specialist clinic for tic disorders during a three-year period overlapping with the COVID-19 pandemic (2020-2023). We compared the clinical features of patients who developed functional tics during the COVID-19 pandemic (N = 83) to patients with Tourette syndrome matched for age and gender (N = 83).

Results: Female adolescents and young adults accounted for 86% of the clinical sample of patients with functional tics, who were less likely to report a family history of tic disorders than their matched controls with Tourette syndrome. Co-morbidity profiles were significantly different: anxiety and other functional neurological disorders were more strongly associated with functional tics, whereas attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder and tic-related obsessive-compulsive behaviors co-occurred more frequently with neurodevelopmental tics. Overall, absence of tic-related obsessive-compulsive behaviors (t = 8.096; p < 0.001) and absence of a family history of tics (t = 5.111; p < 0.001) were the strongest predictors of the diagnosis of functional tics. Compared to neurodevelopmental tics, functional tics were more likely to present acutely/subacutely at a later age (21 versus 7 years), without a clear rostro-caudal progression. Coprophenomena, self-injurious behaviors, and complex clinical manifestations such as blocking tics, throwing tics, and tic attacks, were all over-represented in the functional group.

Conclusions: Our findings provide robust confirmation of both patient-related variables and tic characteristics contributing to the differential diagnosis between functional tics developed during the pandemic and neurodevelopmental tics reported by patients with Tourette syndrome.

Keywords: Functional neurological disorder; Functional tics; Neurodevelopmental tics; Tic disorder; Tourette syndrome.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Attention Deficit Disorder with Hyperactivity* / epidemiology
  • COVID-19* / complications
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Tic Disorders* / complications
  • Tic Disorders* / diagnosis
  • Tic Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Tics* / diagnosis
  • Tics* / epidemiology
  • Tourette Syndrome* / epidemiology
  • Young Adult