Imagine waking up with your hands tied to a hospital bed, begging your sister to help you escape, singing your lungs out believing you’re a famous artist. Then, imagine just having these memories vanish from your brain and having no recollection of it altogether. For most people, such an experience would be unforgettable – scarring, even. But not in the case of Caroline Walsh.
This 26-year-old had been living her life normally when she began experiencing a variety of confusing symptoms. They were triggered at the age of 24 when she had moved back to her childhood home in Boston after which she began experiencing changes in her personality.
In addition, she visited two doctors who wrongly diagnosed her with the flu. She continued on with her routine when another random day she was found on the floor by her dad, thrashing her own body.
When doctors looked into the possible causes of her seizures, they considered it to result either from high fever due to her flu, very low blood sugar, epilepsy, or stroke. The results showed no evidence she may have either.
More surprisingly, they had run a lumbar puncture test, but the inflammation levels had seemed insufficient to be diagnosing Walsh with a mysterious – but widely occurring – disease, named autoimmune encephalitis.
Our bodies are programmed to be protecting itself from viruses and diseases through our immune system. It does so by arranging our white blood cells in lines, turning them away. In some unfortunate cases, however, issues like the flu, bacterial infections, or types of cancer can trigger atypical responses in the body, and turn it against itself.
Such bodily responses – or attacks rather – are known as autoimmune diseases. While doctors and scientists may know a great deal about such diseases in general, autoimmune encephalitis has been less recognizable and therefore more widely misdiagnosed.
Its characteristics, which pertain to illnesses like depression, schizophrenia and epilepsy have made it particularly more difficult to identify. In essence, however, this disease pertains to brain swelling induced by viral infections.
In the case of Caroline Walsh, the flu might be triggered the infection which attacked the brain and subsequently resulted in symptoms which are characteristic of schizophrenia and depression.
The disease previously thought to be very rare. However, statistics derived from a recent study by the Mayo Clinic, representing data from the Rochester Epidemiology Project in Minnesota, revealed that 90,000 people around the globe may be susceptible to developing autoimmune encephalitis, and about 1,000,000 have struggled with it.
Neuroradiologist B.P Kelley has published a study on the pathophysiology of the disease to help recognize the onset, symptoms, and other important revelations in helping diagnose AE. The study can be found in the American Journal of Radiology.
Autoimmune diseases such as AE can affect all parts of the body in addition to the brain organ. Such conditions are being recognized more and more each year, with roughly 80 having been identified thus far.
Some autoimmune conditions which are more widely known are psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and especially diabetes type I. Kelley is currently working on identifying the commonalities of such conditions that affect the brain and hopefully derive a causal link.
During Walsh’s stay at the hospital, she had experienced over a hundred seizures. The nurses had had to take measures in order to ensure she’s being fed and hydrated. Her hands were heavily wrapped like gloves to stop her from removing her IV tubes or attempting to get up, although she was simply lying wishing she could escape.
She had even asked her sister to fight the nurses for her, as she believed they had abducted her and were keeping her hostage. In between her minor seizures, Walsh had also made small singing performances of Zac Brown Band’s song “Knee Deep”.
While that may be an admirable state of joy considering her condition, the real reason she sang those was that she believed she was him. Her physical symptoms prevailed, keeping the doctors in a constant state of confusion until finally, they decided on a medically-induced coma to help with her constant high heart rate and shakiness.
After Walsh woke up, the doctors had already diagnosed her with AE and identified the hippocampus – the area which deals with memory – as the targeted section by the disease. The doctor started her medication with prescribed heavy steroids, as they’ve been proven to be the most effective therapy due to reducing inflammation of the brain.