Indeed, in the past 15 years or so, a new field has emerged called autoimmune neurology. Some two dozen autoimmune diseases of the brain and nervous system have been described. The best known is probably anti-NMDA-receptor encephalitis, made famous by Susannah Cahalan’s memoir “Brain on Fire.” These disorders can resemble bipolar disorder, epilepsy, even dementia — and that’s often how they’re diagnosed initially. But when promptly treated with powerful immune-suppressing therapies, what looks like dementia often reverses. Psychosis evaporates. Epilepsy stops. Patients who just a decade ago might have been institutionalized, or even died, get better and go home.
Admittedly, these diseases are exceedingly rare, but their existencesuggests there could be other immune disorders of the brain and nervous system we don’t know about yet.
Dr. Robert Yolken, a professor of developmental neurovirology at Johns Hopkins, estimates that about a third of schizophrenia patients show some evidence of immune disturbance. “The role of immune activation in serious psychiatric disorders is probably the most interesting new thing to know about these disorders,” he told me.
Studies on the role of genes in schizophrenia also suggest immune involvement, a finding that, for Dr. Yolken, helps to resolve an old puzzle. People with schizophrenia tend not to have many children. So how have the genes that increase the risk of schizophrenia, assuming they exist, persisted in populations over time? One possibility is that we retain genes that might increase the risk of schizophrenia because those genes helped humans fight off pathogens in the past. Some psychiatric illness may be an inadvertent consequence, in part, of having an aggressive immune system.
Which brings us back to Dr. Miyaoka’s patient. There are other possible explanations for his recovery. Dr. Andrew McKeon, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., a center of autoimmune neurology, points out that he could have suffered from a condition called paraneoplastic syndrome. That’s when a cancer patient’s immune system attacks a tumor — in this case, the leukemia — but because some molecule in the central nervous system happens to resemble one on the tumor, the immune system also attacks the brain, causing psychiatric or neurological problems. This condition was important historically because it pushed researchers to consider the immune system as a cause of neurological and psychiatric symptoms. Eventually they discovered that the immune system alone, unprompted by malignancy, could cause psychiatric symptoms.
Another case study from the Netherlands highlights this still-mysterious relationship. In this study, on which Dr. Yolken is a co-author, a man with leukemia received a bone-marrow transplant from a schizophrenic brother. He beat the cancer but developed schizophrenia. Once he had the same immune system, he developed similar psychiatric symptoms.
The bigger question is this: If so many syndromes can produce schizophrenia-like symptoms, should we examine more closely the entity we call schizophrenia?