Anti VGKC antibody encephalitis is caused by two different antibodies called LGI1 and Caspr2. The immunology laboratory would however only test for these two if the ‘generic’ VGKC test is positive. Neurologists are understandably left scratching their heads when both tests turn out to be negative. Not any more, going by a report in Neurology titled The relevance of VGKC positivity in the absence of LGI1 and Caspr2 antibodies. The judgment is out: a positive VGCK antibody test is not significant if both LGI1 and Caspr2 are negative. What a relief.
Many acquired neurological disorders have a way of dragging genetics into their fold. Such is the case it seems with anti NMDA receptor encephalitis. This is the case with the GRIN-1 gene which codes for an NMDA receptor subunit. Mutations in this gene results in visual impairment, intellectual disability, and eye movement disorders. This is reported in Neurology by Josep Dalmauand colleagues in a paper titled Delineating the GRIN1 phenotypic spectrum. It is appropriate that the authors call this the genetic sibling of NMDA receptor encephalitis.
4. ECT for anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis
The typical treatment of autoimmune encephalitis revolves around steroids, intravenous immunoglobulins (IVIg), and plasma exchange. Neurologists, when pushed to the wall, may use heavy duty agents such as Rituximab and Cyclophosphamide. Because anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis may be associated with ovarian teratomas, neurologists may make the difficult trip across the border to consult their gynaecology colleagues. I thought these were all the treatment options for anti NMDA receptor encephalitis until I read this case report, again in Neurology, which reported an excellent response to Electroconvulsive therapy in anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. A no-brainer then if you see neurologists exchanging pleasantries with psychiatrists: they are the ECT experts. It is just a case report for now, but well-worth thinking about when all else fails.
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.
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:
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?