Brain Fire Disease Neuroscience Concept

‘Brain On Fire’ – Doctors Successfully Treat Child With Mystery Illness

Brain Fire Disease Neuroscience Concept

The child suffered from anti-NMDAR (N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor) encephalitis, a rare and difficult to diagnose brain dysfunction.

Blood plasma exchanges helped a 5-year-old with a rare autoimmune disease recover.

The prognosis for the sick child, who had not responded to conventional treatment, was grim. Nonetheless, a group of doctors at Rutgers University believed there might be hope despite the conventional wisdom against pursuing any other treatment.

What happened over the following weeks in the fall of 2020, described in a case study recently published in the European medical journalwas remarkable and representative of a new approach to effectively treating a strange disease, the doctors said.

The study concerns the medical case of a 5-year-old girl who suffered from anti-NMDAR (N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor) encephalopathy, a rare and difficult to diagnose brain dysfunction. Unresponsive to treatment, the child had been transferred to a rehabilitation center and had been in a catatonic state for three months when a team of doctors from Rutgers were called in to help.

New York Post writer Susannah Cahalan wrote a best-selling book about autoimmune disease, which is believed to be triggered by environmental and genetic factors. In her 2012 memoir, “Brain on Fire,” she recounted her medical ordeal suffering from anti-NMDAR encephalitis and her eventual recovery. The title of the book, as well as the Netflix movie that followed, is derived from a term used by Cahalan’s treating physician to describe the catastrophic brain inflammation that ultimately left the journalist in a trance until she was cured.

“With autoimmune diseases, the body attacks a specific system that it misidentifies as foreign,” said Vikram Bhise, case study author and associate professor of pediatrics and neurology and director of the Division of Child Neurology and Neurodevelopmental Disorders at Rutgers Robert. Wood Johnson Medical School and Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital. “In anti-NMDAR encephalitis, the body attacks NMDA receptors in the brain. This causes massive dysfunction manifested by a combination of psychiatric, cognitive and motor problems. (NMDA receptors are brain structures that play an important role in learning and memory.)

Bhise and two other Rutgers doctors were called into the case when the child’s mother wanted a second opinion and the family’s attending physician contacted Bhise. The mother informed the Rutgers team that the child had remained immobile and unresponsive following a rapid phase of mental and physical degeneration.

In general, time is of the essence in treating autoimmune diseases, and the standard of care dictates that no treatment is helpful if too much time has passed, Bhise said. Most of the time, the damage caused by disease cannot be repaired.

Bhise requested that the child be admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit at Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital and decided to try another treatment.

“I said, ‘You know, a lot of time has passed. But I think you still have to try those things,” recalls Bhise.

The child had received a course of steroids, pooled antibodies and a long-term immunosuppressant. Bhise and his team decided to administer a series of blood samples

Plasma is one of the four fundamental states of matter, along with solid, liquid and gas. It is an ionized gas composed of positive ions and free electrons. It was first described by chemist Irving Langmuir in the 1920s.

” data-gt-translate-attributes=”[{” attribute=””>plasma exchanges designed to reset the immune system by cleaning out all the inflammation in the bloodstream.

They saw progress almost instantly.

“Within one or two exchanges, the mom said, ‘Hey, I think something’s a little different,’” Bhise said. “I mean, no one knew this child better than her mom.”

As they continued with the treatment, ultimately with nearly a dozen more plasma exchanges, the child improved steadily until she had made a full recovery.

“I think the lesson that we’ve learned here is that you can still treat this disease after time has passed,” Bhise said. “You shouldn’t stop trying. This is important to know so that other folks in the field do not prematurely give up when they see children – and probably adults as well – with difficult-to-treat anti-NMDAR encephalitis.”

Reference: “Never Too Late to Treat NMDAR Encephalitis: A Paediatric Case Report and Review of Literature” by Yisha Cheng, Dalya Chefitz and Vikram Bhise, 9 August 2022, EMJ Neurology.
DOI: 10.33590/emjneurol/22-00096

Other Rutgers physicians who were members of the medical team and authors of the case study included Yisha Cheng, a resident physician in pediatric medicine and a 2020 graduate of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; and Dalya Chefitz, a physician in the department of pediatrics and director of the division of pediatric hospital medicine at The Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital.

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