Could Some Cases of Schizophrenia Be Caused by an Autoimmune Disease?

Written by Rachel Barclay | Published on February 20, 2014

Research suggests that some cases of psychosis, diagnosed as schizophrenia, may actually be the result of autoimmune encephalitis.

What Causes Schizophrenia?

Many people with schizophrenia experience psychosis: hallucinations, delusions, paranoia, or even catatonia. However, symptoms can vary wildly among patients in their presentation and severity. For some, the disease is only a small setback in an otherwise fully functional life.

Inflammation on the Brain

A researcher at the University of Oxford, Belinda Lennox, and her team may have found one of the diseases that’s currently misdiagnosed as schizophrenia: encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain.

The team examined 46 patients who had experienced their first episode of psychosis. In three of the people—around six percent—they found antibodies that specifically target nerve cells. Antibodies direct the body’s immune system, telling white blood cells what to attack and what to leave alone. Normally, antibodies target viruses and bacteria, allowing the immune system to fight off infections. But in the case of autoimmune diseases, the antibodies target the body’s own cells for destruction.

In this case, the antibodies were attacking a structure called the NMDA receptor, an important protein found on the surface of many nerve cells that allows them to receive signals from other nerve cells. The receptor is found throughout the brain and is involved in the formation of new memories. When the immune system attacks the NMDA receptor, it becomes inflamed, and one of the possible symptoms is psychosis.

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