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Swollen Brains

Strange Brain Disease Makes Victims Appear Insane

By James Donahue

There is a strange mental disorder out there that is attacking young women and adolescent boys, giving them all of the appearances of insanity. Patients may go from agitated aggression to obsessive-compulsive behavior, auditory and visual hallucinations, extreme mood swings, catatonia and even death.

The disease, called Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis, was identified only recently in 2007 by doctors at University of Pennsylvania after neurologist Dr. Josep Dalmau noticed something peculiar about one of the patients, Susannah Cahalan.

During testing, which included having Susannah draw images, Dalmau noticed that when she drew a clock, she placed all of the numbers on one side. He realized that this was a clear indication that this was a neurological and not a psychological problem.

New York neurologist Sauhel Najjar determined that Susannah suffered from an inflammation and swelling of the brain. Further research revealed that it was caused by an autoimmune reaction to glutamate NMDA receptors. Best yet, it was found that this was a treatable disease that responded to aggressive immunotherapy.

There had been earlier cases of this form of encephalitis, but it was believed to be related to ovarian tumors and a disease only known to younger women. Since Cahalan’s case, however, more has been discovered about the disease. While many women found to be suffering from Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis have ovarian tumors, this is not always true. In fact, the disease also has been diagnosed in adolescent males as well. As yet nobody knows what really brings it on.

Cahalan has since written a book about her experiences. In the book, Brain On Fire: My Month of Madness, she describes what it was like to go into fits of madness and not know why this was happening. She complained to her parents that at times it felt as if her brain was on fire. She went from abnormal behavior to paranoia and wild hallucinations. "I had bizarre abnormal movements, would leave my arms out extended, you know, in front of me." At other times she would have moments of normalcy.

Other symptoms include obsessive-compulsive behavior, depression, psychosis, delusions, insomnia, aggression and even hypersexuality.