'Dilbert' Cartoonist's Strange Illness

Scott Adams, creator of the comic strip Dilbert, poses for a portrait with the Dilbert character in his studio in Dublin, Calif., Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
A balding, bespectacled working stiff inexplicably loses his voice — except when speaking in rhyme or pinching his nose.

It may sound like a farcical plot for a popular cartoon satirizing American office culture, but "Dilbert" cartoonist Scott Adams says he recovered less than a week ago from just such an affliction.

"I don't want to give false hope to people who are suffering from the same thing," Adams said, sitting at his drawing tablet in his suburban San Francisco office. "I don't even know if my voice is going to last. Maybe this is an illusion. It came back but in a few days it could go away again forever."

Adams, 49, appears to be a rare example of someone who has largely — but not totally — recovered from spasmodic dysphonia, a mysterious disease in which parts of the brain controlling speech shut down or go haywire. As many as 30,000 Americans are afflicted, typically in their 40s and 50s, experts say.

One of the most peculiar aspects of SD is that victims are typically unable to have intimate conversations in their normal voice. Yet they can speak under different circumstances, such as immediately after sneezing or laughing, or in an exaggerated falsetto or baritone, or while reciting poetry, according to SD support groups.

Patients are often so anxious about their speech that they stop breathing or have heart palpitations. There is no known cure — but many victims have improved their speech by changing tenor or pitch, or doing special breathing and relaxation exercises.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Dr. Krzysztof Izdebski, a voice and speech pathophysiologist in San Francisco who has treated more than 800 people with SD. "People who have this problem are tremendously socially handicapped. They look normal and may even say one or two normal words, but they have facial grimaces and they stutter and people think they're having a stroke. Society is very cruel toward them."

SD may be caused by a chromosomal abnormality that results in spasms of the vocal chords. It may cause spasms in the eyes, arms, legs and mouth. Many victims suffer multiple dystonias, or movement disorders.

Nearly three years ago, Adams developed a tremor in his right pinky whenever he tried to put pen to paper. He turned to a digital drawing tablet and stylus, and the spasms disappeared. Dilbert has been computer-generated ever since.