The discovery of a connection between serious mental illness and a subset of patients, who also have autoimmune disorders, promises to be both life-changing for patients and significant in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness.
The link indicates that in some patients who suffer from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia, separate underlying physical conditions, such as autoimmune disorders, can attack the brain and contribute to mental illness.
As featured in the Washington Post, the story originated with one patient, April Burrell, who, after a traumatic event at age 21, developed psychosis, suffered from visual and auditory hallucinations, and veered into a catatonic state which lasted for 20 years. Burrell was described as a former high school valedictorian and an outgoing straight-A university student, who, after the traumatic event, could not communicate or even care for her own basic needs and was unaware of who and where she was. When clinicians discovered that Burrell also had Lupus, an underlying and treatable autoimmune condition that was attacking her brain, they started a new course of treatment that changed her life. After just months of the new treatment, Burrell awoke from her 20-year “sleep.”
This medical development changed Burrell’s life and promises to be a boon for untold other patients with severe mental illness. Already in New York state, officials have identified 200 patients with mental illness and autoimmune disease who might benefit from treatment similar to that which Burrell received. And while the identification of patients who could potentially benefit continues, researchers at home and across the globe in places such as Britain and Germany, continue to investigate the impact of autoimmune disease on mental illness. According to the recent The Washington Post, “Emerging research has implicated inflammation and immunological dysfunction as potential players in a variety of neuropsychiatric conditions, including schizophrenia, depression and autism.”
As for Burrell, she is making up for lost time after reuniting with family members.