Brain on Fire

Medical theories and discoveries link the psychological to the physical

Journalist+Susannah+Cahalan+struggled+with+anti-NMDA+Receptor+Encephalitis+when+she+was+only+24. and under the creative commons license. Edited using

Journalist Susannah Cahalan struggled with anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis when she was only 24.

The remarkable story of New York Post journalist Susannah Cahalan is one of survival and incredible recovery. It also provides a glimpse into the hidden world the human brain and what may be the true cause of misdiagnosed psychological complications.

Cahalan was living in New York happily up until she started exhibiting strange behavior. She started having bouts of paranoia, hallucination, and eventually seizures. She also experienced numbness in her left hand and short term memory loss. Her concerned family and boyfriend rushed her to medical experts who ran test after test and a multitude of different scans but found nothing. Eventually, after weeks of worsening mental condition as she entered a state of catatonia in the hospital, Cahalan underwent a brain biopsy (a small extraction of tissue from the brain) that revealed she had anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis.

Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis happens when antibodies produced by the immune system to prevent disease begin attacking the brain instead. The antibodies target NMDA receptors, proteins that control electrical impulses in the brain and cause brain inflammation. Symptoms can include unexplained paranoia, personality changes which resemble possession, catatonia, and memory loss and more. This often leads medical professionals to misdiagnose the problem as psychological, which presents the chance that many suffer, living misdiagnosed and untreated in psychiatric wards.

Cahalan at the time (2009) was only the 217th person in the world to have been diagnosed. After months of treatment, Cahalan was able to recover and published an article about her experience as well as a memoir entitled, “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness” (published in 2012). This brought attention to her rare disease and sparked a series of increasing diagnoses and awareness of anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis.

Medical experts such as neurologist Dr. Najjar (who helped save Cahalan) theorize that perhaps causes of mental complications could be linked to anti-NMDA Receptor encephalitis and possibly cured. Najjar believes that many forms of psychological disorders, such as types of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, OCD and depression, may be caused by this unusual case of brain inflammation and continues to research today. These emerging theories link the psychological with the physical aspects of the brain, and could have crucial roles in uncovering the mysteries of the human brain.


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