What Is Alien Hand Syndrome?

Medically reviewed by William Morrison, MD on January 8, 2018Written by Emily Cronkleton on January 8, 2018

Overview

Alien hand syndrome is a rare neurological condition that causes one hand to act on its own free will. Sometimes one leg is affected, though this isn’t as common.

With alien hand syndrome, the hand isn’t under the control of the mind and moves as though it has its own mind. The affected hand feels foreign to its owner during these episodes and seems to move deliberately to carry out tasks that are unintentional.

While it can affect children, usually alien hand occurs in adults. It’s sometimes referred to as Dr. Strangelove syndrome, Strangelovian hand, or anarchic hand.

What causes this?

Alien hand syndrome can be caused by several factors. Some people develop alien hand syndrome after a stroke, trauma, or tumor. It’s sometimes associated with cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, and brain aneurysms.

Alien hand syndrome is linked to brain surgeries that separate the two hemispheres of the brain. This may involve an incision along the corpus callosum. The corpus callosum divides the brain hemispheres and allows for communication between the two sides. Surgeries to treat epilepsy sometimes affect the brain in this way. Lesions have also been found in the anterior cingulate cortex, posterior parietal cortex, and supplementary motor cortex areas of the brain in those with the condition.

Brain scans show that people with alien hand syndrome have isolated activities in the contralateral primary motor area. This is thought to be due to lesions or damage in the parietal cortex. This affects intentional planning systems and can cause spontaneous movements.

What are the symptoms?

The most prominent symptom of alien hand syndrome is the inability to control the hand as it acts independently. The affected hand may move involuntarily and perform goal-directed tasks and actions. The hand is said to move without cognitive control or awareness. It’s as though it’s being controlled by someone else or has a mind of its own.

The hand may touch your face, button a shirt, or pick up an object, sometimes repeatedly or compulsively. The alien hand may also levitate on its own. The hand may also engage in self-oppositional actions such as closing a drawer that the other hand just opened or unbuttoning a shirt that you just buttoned. The alien hand is uncooperative and may perform incorrect actions or fail to follow commands.

People with alien hand syndrome may sense that the hand or limb is foreign or doesn’t belong to them. However, they don’t deny limb ownership, which can happen in other disorders.

How is it diagnosed?

A doctor may diagnose alien hand syndrome through observation and evaluation. Diagnosing alien hand syndrome is complicated because it’s a neurological disorder that lacks a psychiatric component. This makes it more difficult to diagnose because behavioral issues are more common than alien hand syndrome. Symptoms can sometimes be attributed to a psychiatric disorder, which may be frustrating to the person affected.

Treatment options

There is no cure for alien hand syndrome. Therapies and pharmacologic options for alien hand syndrome lack development, but scientists are working on treatments to reduce symptoms. People who have alien hand syndrome after brain illness or a stroke may recover after some time. However, recovery is less successful for people with neurodegenerative diseases.

The condition may be treated or managed using muscle control therapies such as botulinum toxin (Botox) and neuromuscular blocking agents. Benzodiazepines have been successful in some cases, but behavioral techniques seem to be more beneficial.

Mirror box therapy, cognitive therapy techniques, and learning task behavioral therapies can help manage symptoms. Visuospatial coaching techniques may also help. Sometimes the individual will try to restrain their alien hand by holding it under between their legs or sitting on it. Some people may find that it’s helpful to hold an object in the alien hand to prevent it from performing tasks.

It may help for the individual with alien hand syndrome or another person to give verbal commands to stop the actions. However, this method may not provide long-lasting results. A doctor may recommend physical and occupational therapies.

A few fast facts

Here are a few facts about alien hand syndrome:

  • It was first recorded in 1909.
  • Alien hand syndrome usually affects the left or nondominant hand.
  • One of the characters in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove has alien hand syndrome. Because of this, some people refer to alien hand syndrome as Dr. Strangelove syndrome.
  • A few cases have reported that the alien hand will try to harm the individual.
  • Some people name their alien hand.

What’s the outlook?

While there is no cure for alien hand syndrome, you may be able to manage your symptoms to some degree. Check in regularly with your doctor if you experience any symptoms related to alien hand. A proper diagnosis may help to reduce any unease you may be experiencing. Your doctor will help you to manage your symptoms and set up an appropriate treatment plan based on your individual needs.

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