Does "Excited Delirium" Account for Some Taser Deaths?

By Matthew Harwood

A controversial new study contends that some people who died after being tased or subdued by police did not die from the shock or the restraints but from a rare disorder, reports's Danger Room.

The disputed disorder, known as "excited delirium" or ED, is marked by "bizarre and/or aggressive behavior, shouting, paranoia, panic, violence towards other people, unexpected physical strength, and hyperthermia," according to a University of Miami Web page devoted to the phenomenon.  Often, those experiencing symptoms of ED are under the influence of drugs.

In layman's terms, think the Incredible Hulk on crack.

But many doctors and civil liberty groups believe the disorder is a myth conjured up to cover up police brutality. One police psychologist accuses manufacturer Taser International of brainwashing police in Canada and the United States into using its product in "ridiculously inappropriate applications." In 2007, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) tased 40-year-old Robert Dziekanski, a disoriented and confused Polish immigrant that was looking for his mother inside the Vancouver International Airport. Soon after the tasing, Dziekanski lost consciousness and died. The RCMP believe ED killed Dziekanski. He had no drugs in his system. (Watch video below.)

But the researchers connected to the University of Miami Web page disagree. They say they're found the biological evidence to proof ED is real, Danger Room reports.

The new study, carried out by Deborah Mash and colleagues at the University of Miami in Florida , is published in Forensic Science International (abstract only without subscription) and reported in New Scientist. The researchers looked at samples of brain tissue for ninety individuals who has apparently died of excited delirium.

They found the signatures of two distinctive “biomarker” proteins which were common to all ninety cases. One the one hand there were abnormally low levels of a dopamine transporter. This is a substance that would normally clear up excess dopamine produce by stress or drugs; a low level means that the body could be overwhelmed by dopamine, leading to either cardiac problems or severe overheating.

A second biomarker is a “heat shock” protein called HSPA1B which is an indicator that body temperature was raised. This is not surprising, as the average core body temperature was 40.4 C, but it does give a forensic way of demonstrating that a person was overheating at the time of death.

So, if the research stands up, excited delirium is a real condition.

But that doesn't absolve police from improperly using tasers, Dr. Shree Bhalerao, a Toronto-based psychiatrist, notes in an interview below with CBC. Rather it means police need to discover new ways to restrain subjects experiencing ED because applying a taser shock could compound the ED, leading to death.

"Individuals suffering from ED should be viewed as psychiatric patients and require immediate medical attention," according to the researchers' Web site. "ED is a medical emergency."

♦ Photo by AperturePriority/Flickr


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