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What is Autoimmune encephalitis?

Autoimmune encephalitis refers to a group of conditions when the body’s immune system mistakenly targets healthy brain cells leading to brain inflammation (brain swelling). There are various types of autoimmune encephalitis and the individuals afflicted by these conditions can present with a whole variety of neurological and psychiatric symptoms.

Neurologic symptoms can include memory/cognitive issues, seizures (fits), problems with speech as well as deficits with mobility and function. Psychiatric symptoms can include psychosis (altered perception of reality), delusions (false beliefs), hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear), aggression, and compulsive / repetitive.

Autoimmune encephalitis can appear when antibodies (proteins) generated in the body attack other self-proteins within the person’s own nerve cells or on the surface of nerve cells. The proteins that are targeted are the ones that are important in the transmission of signal between nerve cells. This disruption of the signal transmission can lead to a patient showing the symptoms and signs of autoimmune encephalitis.

A subset of autoimmune encephalitis can occur in association with underlying cancer (so called paraneoplastic autoimmune encephalitis).

Autoimmune encephalitis generally occurs sporadically (without a clear precipitant), and affects people of all ages. In rare cases, it can occur as sequelae of a pre-existing brain infection. In most cases, the exact cause of the disease is unknown. Treatment may involve immunosuppressive therapy and removal of cancer in the paraneoplastic cases.

Autoimmune encephalitis is rare but it can be mistaken with various other neurological or psychiatric or neurodegenerative conditions. In many circumstances, there can be delays in diagnosis and commencement of treatment. Untreated disease can have significant deleterious consequences.

Each patient is different

It is important to look at the holistic view of the individual and their lifestyle, because every patient is different. Different patients will present with a different collection of symptoms, and to varying degrees of severity of disease. Patients will respond differently to medication, the condition itself, and the emotional factors around the diagnosis.

If a patient presents with any or all of the symptoms of autoimmune encephalitis, it’s important to get an understanding of the patient’s background (both medically and of their lifestyle). This can be obtained through the patient themselves, family or friends, or any accessible medical records.