New Research Suggests Autoimmune Disease May Be Linked to Psychiatric Conditions
Researchers have discovered that a subset of patients with psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, may actually have an autoimmune disease that attacks the brain. The findings have the potential to transform care for some of psychiatry’s sickest patients, many of whom are languishing in mental institutions.
The Awakening of April Burrell
April Burrell was an outgoing, straight-A student majoring in accounting at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. However, after a traumatic event when she was 21, April suddenly developed psychosis and became lost in a constant state of visual and auditory hallucinations. She was eventually diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia and required constant attention.
Nearly two decades later, researchers discovered that although April’s illness was clinically indistinguishable from schizophrenia, she also had lupus, an underlying and treatable autoimmune condition that was attacking her brain. After months of targeted treatments, April woke up.
The Impact of the Research
Although the current research will likely only help a small subset of patients, the impact of the work is already beginning to reshape the practice of psychiatry and the way many cases of mental illness are diagnosed and treated. Researchers working with the New York State mental healthcare system have identified about 200 patients with autoimmune diseases, some institutionalized for years, who may be helped by the discovery. Scientists around the world, including Germany and Britain, are conducting similar research, finding that underlying autoimmune and inflammatory processes may be more common in patients with a variety of psychiatric syndromes than previously believed.
“These are the forgotten souls,” said Sander Markx, director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University. “We’re not just improving the lives of these people, but we’re bringing them back from a place that I didn’t think they could come back from.”
The Diagnosis of April Burrell
April’s diagnosis made researchers wonder if her earlier trauma had triggered the disease or was unrelated to her condition. The team hypothesized that the antibodies produced by her immune system may have altered the receptors that bind glutamate, an important neurotransmitter, disrupting how neurons can send signals to one another. The autoimmune disease, it seemed, was a specific biological cause and potential treatment target for the neuropsychiatric problems April faced.
The discovery that autoimmune disease may be linked to psychiatric conditions has the potential to transform care for some of psychiatry’s sickest patients. Although the current research will likely only help a small subset of patients, it is already beginning to reshape the practice of psychiatry and the way many cases of mental illness are diagnosed and treated.