28 November 2018, By Mater Lotteries

Mater comes one step closer to understanding why the immune system attacks healthy brain cells

2 min read

Autoimmune encephalitis is a diverse group of disorders that occurs when the immune system attacks healthy brain cells.

These attacks can change the function of neurotransmitters. Because of the wide-spread distribution of neurotransmitters in the central nervous system these conditions can be very varied in severity and characteristics.

Symptoms can vary from confusion, personality change, psychosis, seizures, abnormal movements, muscle rigidity, a decreased level of consciousness, coma, and even gastrointestinal upset.

These diverse symptoms means accurately diagnosing autoimmune encephalitis is challenging.

Luckily, thanks to the wonderful support from people like you, the Mater Hospital Neurosciences Unit and Betty McGrath Fellow Dr Andrew Swayne are building upon significant momentum in this area and are exploring a reliable imaging marker for autoimmune encephalitis that would enable early diagnosis, allowing earlier treatment and differentiation from other conditions.

Dr Andrew Swayne is conducting an analysis of all existing and newly diagnosed cases in South East Queensland, using a varied approach that includes patient history, biomarkers of the disease, neuropsychology and advanced imaging.

His research aims to determine if advanced magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques such as Diffusion Weighted Imaging (DWI) and functional MRI (fMRI) will help clinicians better understand how the disease progresses and the impact it has on brain networks.

A reliable imaging marker for autoimmune encephalitis would enable clinicians to accurately and rapidly diagnose the condition allowing them to improve patient outcomes.

As part of this research project, Dr Swayne will collaborate with Mater’s Advanced Epilepsy Unit to better define the relationship between autoimmune encephalitis and epilepsy—with the aim of developing new evaluation and clinical guidelines in refractory epilepsy patients, like Emily.

Five years ago, 14 year old Emily was told she would spend the rest of her life having seizures. She was diagnosed with Focal Dyscognitive Epilepsy, a form of epilepsy which affects a person’s ability to focus and seizures appear as confusing episodes which leave sufferers unresponsive, confused and unable to communicate.

But Emily’s family weren’t giving up and reached out to Queensland’s only Neuroscience Centre for Excellence, Mater’s Centre for Neurosciences, where specialists started Emily on a number of medications and a procedure which involved inserting tiny electrodes into her brain.

And while it’s too soon to tell if the recent surgery has cured Emily’s epilepsy completely, she hasn’t had a seizure since.

Through Dr Swayne’s research, an autoimmune encephalitis imaging marker would allow differentiation between other conditions with similar clinical characteristics (such as refractory epilepsy and mental health disorders like schizophrenia).

This continued research in the area of neuroscience has only been made possible with the support of people in the community just like you. It is another step in Mater’s vision of delivering precision medicine services that rapidly translates advances in research into clinical outcomes.