Breakthrough: Some cases of schizophrenia and bipolar caused by autoimmune disease

Imagine being on an emotional rollercoaster of ups and downs or waking up one day and you start hearing voices, think someone is chasing you, and you start seeing things. Those are real problems that causes millions of people to be diagnosed with Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. A mom and doctor from Houston Methodist Hospital are on a mission to find answers about what may be a treatable virus and not incurable mental illness.

Susan Baker is desperate to find help for her 22 year old daughter, Tiffany. Only two years ago, it looked like she had a bright future ahead. Then, everything suddenly and dramatically changed for and her family. Susan Baker says it was like someone turned on a light switch! Her daughter started screaming at the voices in her head. "She was literally trying to jump out of her skin. She couldn't escape herself. There were tons of people where we were - as she did this - everybody knew something had happened, but nobody knew what. There was a bubble that formed around us and people just moved away," explains Susan.

Doctors thought Tiffany might have Schizophrenia, but not one treatment has helped her. Susan is a Psychotherapist, who never expected to see her own daughter suffering like this. "My motto is 'hope begins here', and with this going on for two years, I was beginning to lose it, nothing was turning up," says Susan. She and Tiffany's Psychiatrist believe Tiffany has a medical problem, NOT a mental illness, and has met up with a doctor, who believes they could be right.

Dr. Joseph Masdeu is the Director of the Houston Methodist Nantz National Alzheimer's Center. He came here from the National Institutes of Health, and he has been studying an auto-immune condition that can mimic mental problems, like Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder. He believes many patients are wrongly diagnosed with these conditions and that they may have an auto-immune disease that blocks important receptors in the brain. "When we block that receptor, people have hallucinations. They can have thoughts of people reading their minds and delusions and it can be bipoloar - likely caused by an autoimmune attack," says Dr. Masdeu. This causes the body to think of the brain as an enemy and attack it.

A book and movie called "Brain on fire" has brought national attention to the condition that is called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. It's the true life story of journalist Susannah Cahalan, who went from a healthy 24 year old to being compared to someone out of the exorcist! In the blink of an eye, she morphed into a drooling, violent, catatonic shell of herself.

"There's this video of me in the hospital and I'm watching this other Sussanah, so far divorced from who I am now and she's frightened, angry, just terrifying," says Susannah.
Susannah woke up a month later, strapped to a hospital bed and doesn't remember any of it. After a million dollars in testing, one doctor figured it out. Susannah is still closely monitored, but says she was cured by immunotherapy treatments. People who have this problem can be cured by medications that we already have available, so by decreasing the level of antibodies in the brain, the person can go from being very sick and feeling these problems to being completely normal! Now Dr. Masdeu is trying to develop better testing for the condition. Right now, doctors rely on spinal fluid to detect the auto-immune condition, but he says the results are often wrong.

While Schizophrenia affects 3.5 million people in the U.S. and Bipolor Disorder about 6 million, Dr. Masdeu says it's important to understand that it can be caused by a number of reasons and not just an auto-immune disease. Tiffany's mom sure hopes this auto-immune condition will be the key to unlocking her daughter's brain.

Dr. Masdeu and this study have given me hope. Hospitals typically offer studies only at their hospital, but Dr. Masdeu says this is such an important mission, that he's working with a number of hospitals in Houston to try to find and help more patients.

If you'd like more information, you can reach out to Jennifer Garrett with Dr. Masdeu's research team at 713-441-9484.