The name of the disease sounds like just another clinical term: Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis. But the experience of the disease sounds like the premise of a psychological thriller: A healthy young woman has everything going for her -- a promising career, an active social life -- until suddenly, she starts feeling "off." She's moody, she's paranoid; she becomes convinced her apartment is infested with bedbugs and her boyfriend is having an affair ... soon, the seizures and hallucinations begin. Before long she's hospitalized, appearing "possessed, crying or laughing hysterically one moment and turning catatonic the next." Doctors prescribe antipsychotics for what they assume is some form of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
But Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis isn't a mental illness at all. It's a recently discovered auto immune disease that strikes mostly young women and is decribed as having one's "brain on fire."
That's what happened to Susannah Calahan, New York Times best-selling author of "Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness." The disease is treatable; though not curable -- Calahan was fortunate (as much as anyone who contracts such a horrible disease can be considered "fortunate," anyway) to eventually receive a correct diagnosis. Which was thanks to a hunch, really, by Calahan's doctor, Souhel Najjar, who thought to give his then 24-year-old patient a test usually reserved for people with dementia or Alzheimer’s: The Clock Test. Explains Calahan:
"He first asked me to draw a circle -- and I did after one aborted attempt ... then he asked me to write in the numbers. When he stared at the page, he nearly applauded. I had squished in all the numbers -- 1 through 12 -- on the right-hand side, entirely neglecting the left side of space. This proved to him that whatever I was suffering from was neurological -- not psychiatric. It was the key that finally led to my final diagnosis."
On the one hand, it's completely fascinating that such a simple test would solve this mystery -- on the other, it's completely horrifying to think, as Calahan says, that "there could be people in comas right now or people stuck in psych wards that have this disease and aren’t being treated properly."
Have you ever heard of this disease?
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