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News / Northwest

University of Idaho slayings suspect had rare neurological condition called visual snow. What is it?

By Sally Krutzig, Idaho Statesman
Published: March 20, 2023, 7:38am

BOISE, Idaho — The man charged with the stabbing deaths of four University of Idaho students has spent much of his teen and adult life consumed by a rare neurological disorder known as visual snow syndrome.

“He would talk about it, like, all the time,” Thomas Arntz, a former friend of Bryan Koberger’s in high school, told the Idaho Statesman in a phone interview. “The word that comes to mind is that he was neurotic about it, and talked about it relentlessly. I guess it truly bothered him to no end.”

Learning of the condition through Kohberger was the first time many people following the case had heard of the little-known condition. Even experts say they have a lot to learn.

Kohberger, 28, a Pennsylvania native who was studying criminal justice and criminology at Washington State University, has been charged with four counts of felony first-degree murder and one count of felony burglary in the Nov. 13 homicides at a Moscow house. The attack took the lives of seniors Madison Mogen, 21, of Coeur d’Alene, and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, of Rathdrum; junior Xana Kernodle, 20, of Post Falls; and freshman Ethan Chapin, 20, of Mount Vernon, Washington.

What is visual snow?

Visual snow syndrome is a relatively recently observed condition that is believed to have been first described in 1995. It wasn’t officially given a name until a 2015 study.

People with visual snow report seeing small, moving dots across their vision. Those who grew up before the age of smart TVs should be able to easily picture what it looks like: Visual snow is like looking at the world through a fuzzy, static-filled television.

“They have like a broken TV box in front of their eyes,” Lars Michels, a Swiss researcher working on some of the most recent studies of the syndrome, told the Statesman in a phone interview.

Episodes of snowy vision usually last a minute but can go on for hours, Michels said.

People report other visual distortions as well. It can look like it’s raining when it’s not, or as if there are 12 moving cars when there is only one.

About half of patients report that visual snow is accompanied by migraines and a ringing in the ears known as tinnitus, both of which can be debilitating. Migraines can be painful enough to prevent people from performing daily activities and tinnitus can make concentration and hearing difficult, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Visual snow may affect up to 2% of the population, but not enough research has been done to get a true sense of its prevalence, the Mayo Clinic reported. Michels said visual snow is often misdiagnosed as either just migraines or just a visual problem. The connection is not always made between the two.

A 2020 study found an average age of 29 among visual snow patients, who all reported that symptoms began early in life. The syndrome is equally common among men and women, unlike migraines, which affect women two to three times more than men.

Suspect documented condition

Online records suggest that Kohberger turned to the internet to talk about his struggles with the condition. A user who appeared to be Kohberger posted about visual snow on Tapatalk, an online forum, between 2009 and 2012.

The New York Times, which was first to report on the Tapatalk account, noted that the user name matched an email address belonging to Kohberger, references to his birthday lined up with his known birth date, and his listed location of Effort, Pennsylvania, matched Kohberger’s hometown. A photo on the account appears to show Kohberger.

The user, named Exarr.thosewithvisualsnow, wrote that he developed the syndrome on Sept. 21, 2009. Kohberger was almost 15 years old at that time. Since then, the user said he had changed, “mainly from the anxiety and sense of derealization and hopelessness.” He wrote frequently of how difficult it was to access memories.

“Ever since then i have been depressed,” he wrote in 2010. (Quotations from his posts in this story are presented as he wrote them, unedited to conform with conventional capitalization and punctuation.) “I can’t remember anything at all. And I always have this horrible pressure in my head.. My mind is never not on visual snow and i always wonder what a normal person would be doing while i sit there and suffer. This whole thing has made me crazy, I feel like my life is pointless because people can think about times with parents / childhood memories and be happy, and I won’t be able to.”

Feelings of depersonalization

The Tapatalk user described feeling a lack of connection to life, saying his life felt like a video game. At times, he was “slightly into” the game, but other times the game felt “pointless and full of nothing.”

“I have had this horrible Depersonalization go on in my life for almost 2 years,” a 2011 post said. “I often find myself making simple human interactions, but it is as if I am playing a role playing game.”

Looking into the faces of family members was like “looking at a video game, but less.”

“As my family group hugs and celebrates, I am stuck in this void of nothing, feeling completely no emotion, feeling nothing,” the post said. “I feel dirty, like there is dirt inside of my head, my mind, I am always dizzy and confused. I feel no self worth.”

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Michels said depersonalization or feeling as if one is in a video game is common. Reliable vision allows our brain to know it is in a stable environment. When seemingly random noises and visual disturbances are continuously popping up, it can make a person feel as if their environment is less grounded in reality.

Michels said living with a condition for which there is no cure can take a toll on one’s mental health. People with the syndrome often suffer from mild to moderate depression, fatigue and insomnia.

A 2021 study that surveyed 125 visual snow patients found that “patients showed high rates of anxiety and depression, depersonalization, fatigue and poor sleep, which significantly impacted quality of life. Further, psychiatric symptoms, particularly depersonalization, were related to increased severity of visual symptoms.”

But Michels isn’t aware of a connection between visual snow and aggression, and he does not believe people should see a link between Kohberger’s condition and his likelihood to carry out an attack.

Looking for a cure

In 2011, the Tapatalk user wrote that he thought he had discovered how to cure visual snow. He believed visual snow syndrome was caused by toxins from the wrong types of food.

“WHEN SOMETHING IS HAPPENING IN YOUR BRAIN THAT SHOULDN’T , CHEMICALS ARE BEING RELEASED THAT SHOULDNT,” the post said. “THESE CHEMICALS ARE RELEASED BECAUSE WE HAVE TOXINS THAT OUR BODY DOESN’T WANT, IT IS GOING HAYWIRE.”

He pointed to a website, Know the Cause, which espouses that many ailments are caused by fungi and yeast. The user said he planned to try to cure his syndrome through the diet on the website.

The diet, known as the Kaufmann Diet, encourages people to eliminate a large number of foods, including sugar, wheat, corn, peanuts, soy, alcohol and animals that were fed these products before slaughter.

“The truth is, there is no test for our toxins, we just need to rid ourselves of them,” the user wrote.

Arntz remembered Kohberger trying to cure his visual snow through a diet.

“Carbohydrates were a big no-no, and you had to stay away from breads, and absolutely no sugar,” Arntz told the Statesman. “So mostly he would eat slices of ham and omelets.”

Many people said they recalled Kohberger’s considerable weight loss in high school.

He became hyper-focused on what he ate, his friends said — to the point that he developed an eating disorder that required hospitalization, Jack Baylis, 28, another former friend, previously told the Statesman. Arntz estimated that Kohberger weighed more than 300 pounds, and the amount he lost was as much as half his body mass.

Arntz suggested Kohberger’s desire to lose weight may have overlapped with trying to cure his visual snow.

“Bryan went on this diet in the hopes his symptoms would go away. But it’s such a restrictive diet, and he’d cave in and try something else,” Arntz said.

The final post from the user’s Tapatalk post on Feb. 19, 2012 was titled “Come to terms with the VS?”

“I have just accepted my visual snow finally,” he wrote. “I don’t even feel the need to stay away from the forum, it doesn’t scare me anymore! anyone else come to terms? I feel like coming to terms could be a bad thing though.”

What the science says

Experts still don’t know what causes visual snow syndrome, and there is no known cure. People who develop it have it the rest of their lives.

But, as more research is conducted, clues are emerging about its origins.

Research indicates that visual snow is connected to something going wrong with the visual-processing center in the brain’s cerebral cortex, causing it to overload and process sights incorrectly.

“There’s probably too much fuel in the tank of these people, and the brain cannot deal with it, because it’s overloaded with information,” Michels said.

An overloaded brain forces it to work more and, similar to the way muscles grow with increased exercise, the high amount of activity causes extra brain growth.

Michels’ research involves analyzing images taken of the brains of visual snow patients. Researchers can see that a part of their brains is expanded, causing them to suspect this abnormal growth may be linked to visual snow symptoms.

“When you have too much traffic going on in the brain and too much information is bothering a particular area in the brain all the time, it adapts to it,” Michels said. “We call it maladaptive plasticity.”

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