Some individuals diagnosed with schizophrenia, may in fact have NMDA receptor encephalitis – an autoimmune disease that can be identified with a simple blood test and effectively treated.
Dr James Scott, psychiatrist and researcher at the UQ Centre for Clinical Research in collaboration with neurologists and immunologists at the Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital recently discovered this to be the case for two patients who had been living with a diagnosis of schizophrenia for a number of years.
“NMDAR encephalitis probably explains about 1% of patients initially diagnosed with a psychotic disorder. It can occasionally look exactly like schizophrenia,” Dr Scott said.
“Although it’s a small number, those able to be treated will be spared a lifetime of disability and living in the shadow of a debilitating mental illness.”
This result gives hope for all schizophrenia sufferers, as it means there are other possible causes for this mysterious illness which are yet to be discovered.
Thanks to the generosity of two local donors keen to make a difference to people living with mental illness, Dr Scott has been able to establish a ‘bio bank’ and is collecting blood samples from patients who are hospitalised with their first episode of psychosis.
“Keeping a bio bank will enable blood samples to be easily tested in the future as we discover new causes for psychosis.” Dr Scott said. “This could assist researchers to identify treatment options for patients.”
Dr Scott and his collaborators are also looking into the longer-term effects on learning and memory of patients following treatment of NMDAR encephalitis, to advise on appropriate rehabilitation strategies on completion of this study.
“The future of research in this area is significant. There is so much we are yet to learn about the causes of psychosis,” Dr Scott said.
“What drives me to find the answers is the hope of being able to help people I see struggling to live with schizophrenia – especially the teenagers and young adults whose life as they know it are so disrupted when this illness emerges.”