Driven Insane -- by Your Own Immune System; One Woman's Terrifying Story Reveals How Rogue Particles in Your Brain May Trigger Mental Illness

Article excerpt


THE first inkling of trouble was when Liz Oldershaw became uncharacteristically scatty. 'I arrived at the gym one day with nothing in my kit bag,' says the 24-year-old.

'At work, assisting my Dad, who is a company accountant, I would be in the middle of a spreadsheet and suddenly forget what I was doing. One day, I didn't even recognise the cleaner we've had for 15 years.' Over the next few weeks, Liz experienced more of these incidents, then she suddenly descended into such a severe psychotic state she had to be put into an artificial coma to stop her from tearing her own eyes out.

Her devastating mental disintegration left doctors baffled.

Fortunately, experts at Oxford University were able to diagnose the cause from a simple blood test.

The bright and ambitious psychology graduate was not cracking up -- her body's immune system was attacking her brain.

Researchers believe that every year, hundreds of other victims of mental illnesses, such as post-natal psychosis, schizophrenia and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) may have the same treatable physical cause for their bizarre and frightening delusions. It might also be linked to epilepsy.

Significantly, a blood test taken in GPs' surgeries would be enough to diagnose it and treatment could be as straightforward as steroids.

When Liz became ill, she was terrified. 'I started to see faces in corners and feared I was schizophrenic,' she says.

A few weeks after her symptoms began she collapsed during a seizure and was taken to hospital.

'They examined me and sent me home, saying they would monitor me with check-ups,' she says.

But back home, she had another, more severe seizure. She was rushed back to hospital, where her condition rapidly worsened over the next two weeks. She suffered increasingly frequent seizures and horrifying hallucinations.

'I was plagued with visions of the devil, of descending into hell and of being god-like,' she says. She thrashed about wildly trying to tear out her tonsils and eyeballs. That's when doctors put her into the protective coma.

A BATTERY of scans had revealed Liz's brain was seriously inflamed, but tests of her blood and brain fluid could not explain why. Two-and-a-half weeks after her first seizure, the results of a key blood test came back from the specialists at Oxford University -- her blood showed the presence of an antibody called NMDA.

Liz was suffering from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a disease identified in 2007 and until now thought to be extremely rare. (Blood samples in suspected cases in Ireland are also sent to Oxford. Staff at the Immunology Department of Beaumont Hospital, Dublin, also run their own tests and if results are equivocal, they wait for definitive results from Oxford.)

A rogue antibody produced by Liz's immune system was destroying her brain -- in a similar way that rheumatoid arthritis, another auto-immune disease, attacks the joints.

She was immediately given heavy doses of immune-system suppressing drugs, including powerful steroids. In a further attempt to clear the antibody, she was given donor plasma (the liquid part of blood) via dialysis. In all, she received 40 pints of plasma. After 14 weeks, Liz was finally roused from her induced coma, looked at her father and said: 'I love you.' It was the first step on a long road to recovery that still continues two years on. At first, Liz could not walk or write. Her memory had been wiped: she couldn't remember the illness and had only patchy recollections of her time at university.

But while her condition was once considered a rare medical quirk, investigators believe immune disorders may be causing far more mental illness than imagined.

When researchers led by Dr Belinda Lennox, an honorary consultant psychiatrist at Oxford University's department of psychiatry, began blood-testing patients with psychotic symptoms in her clinic two years ago, they found that 6 per cent had the NMDA antibody. …