Neurologists have always known that autoimmunity accounts for many nervous system disorders. A classical example is Sydenham’s chorea or St Vitus dance. This movement disorder develops after rheumatic fever, and is caused by antibodies to the bacterium called Streptocccus. The modern-day resurrection of this condition is called paediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections. I know, too long, but just call it PANDAS. A great acronym I must say, quite unlike ABGA which stands for anti basal ganglia antibody syndrome, an umbrella term for many movement disorders provoked by external agents.
Neurologists are also comfortable with the knowledge that primary autoimmune disorders affect the nervous system. Prominent here are the neuropsychiatric features of systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). SLE also presents with movement disorders such as chorea, amongst many other features. Similarly, there are diverse neurological manifestations of the anti-phospholipid antibody syndrome.
A third group of neurological diseases are more sinister because the antibodies are generated by cancer cells. These paraneoplastic neurological syndromes are legion and protean, requiring a high index of suspicion to diagnose. Most frustrating for neurologists is that the cancer itself may not emerge for several years after the diagnosis of a paraneoplastic syndrome. Notorious for this cloak and dagger behaviour is small cell lung cancer (SCLC). Because of the potential consequences, neurologists deploy their heavy duty imaging scans such as positron emission tomography (PET) scans. They then lie low, year after year, waiting to nab the devious cancer as soon as it shows up.
In recent years, a completely different class of disorders has attained notoriety and infamy in the form of autoimmune encephalitis. These disorders often pretend to be infectious diseases, but they totally disregard the antibiotics and antiviral agents the neurologist attacks them with. By subterfuge and subversion they disable ion channels and receptors to cause havoc in the brain. And nobody has described such havoc better than Susannah Cahalan in her book Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.
Autoimmune encephalitis may fester for weeks, years or decades, evading detection by its duplicitous behaviour, and by the increasing number of antibodies that may be responsible. There are however three main culprit antibodies which neurologists are now getting a grip on:
- Voltage gated potassium channel (VGKC)
- N-methyl-d-aspartase (NMDA)
- α-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazolepropionic acid (AMPA)
These conditions are all potentially fatal but eminently curable; this underlies the importance of recognising and treating them very early. A recent paper in Lancet Neurology summarises the clinical approach to autoimmune encephalitis (pdf).
Autoimmune neurology is a rapidly evolving field. I will review recent developments in this area in a second post to follow shortly titled What’s breaking at the cutting edge-of autoimmune neurology?