April Burrell was a bright and outgoing young woman who saw her promising future cut short when she fell ill with schizophrenia at age 21, after suffering a traumatic event. Over time she was trapped in a deep state of catatonia, unable to move or blink for long periods or even remember who she was.
No one believed that he could awaken from that state.
But. Thanks to a novel medical treatment, the unthinkable happened in 2020 and the woman "went back to being herself," in the words of her older half-brother, Guy Burrell, who told The Washington Post that his dream of having her back had finally been fulfilled.
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Illustration of schizophrenia. Kubkoo/Getty Images/iStockphoto
An interdisciplinary group of more than 70 experts from around the world led by Dr. Sander Markx, director of Columbia University's precision psychiatric laboratory, discovered that Burrell suffered from an autoimmune disease called lupus.
Lupus caused the young woman's body to attack itself with antibodies that her own cells produced in excess. Studies indicated that was happening in his brain, particularly areas prone to causing psychosis or schizophrenia, serious but common mental illnesses.
So, experts hypothesized that if Burrell was subjected to neuropsychiatric lupus treatment to attack his autoimmune disease, his mental health might improve.
The results of his treatment surprised experts from the first tests. Before receiving the drugs he had been practically unable to draw a clock, but after two cycles he was able to draw half a clock and by the third cycle, a month later, he managed to draw an almost perfect complete clock.
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When her relatives finally saw her face to face last year, they believed a miracle had happened, according to the newspaper.
"When he arrived with us, we thought he was a new person," Guy Burrell said. "He knew all of us and remembered things from when we were kids ... He hugged me and held my hand. We were so happy that we could have done a parade because we had never seen her like that before."
"It was like I had come home," Markx said. "We never thought that was possible."
From that amazing recovery experience, experts have found another 200 patients admitted to psychiatric hospitals with autoimmune diseases, whom they believe they could help with treatment similar to Burrell's.
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Scientists in other parts of the world, such as Germany and Britain, are also doing research on Burrell-like patients and have found thatunderlying autoimmune and inflammatory processes may be more common than previously believed in patients with mental illness.
And while these are still a small number of patients, the positive results of the treatments could have implications for how millions of people with psychiatric illnesses around the world are treated.
"These are the lost souls," Markx was quoted as saying. "Not only are we improving the lives of these patients, but we're bringing them back from a place we didn't think they could return from."