NYT: Man’s Bone Marrow Transplant Cures His Schizophrenia. What Does it Mean?

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran an opinion piece that caught our attention.

“He Got Schizophrenia. He Got Cancer. And Then He Got Cured.”

Click here to read the full piece.

The piece outlines that a young man in his early 20s started experiencing symptoms of Schizophrenia .

“The man was 23 when the delusions came on. He became convinced that his thoughts were leaking out of his head and that other people could hear them. When he watched television, he thought the actors were signaling him, trying to communicate. He became irritable and anxious and couldn’t sleep.”

To add insult to injury, he then started coming down with more physical symptoms that eventually turned into a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia!

Acute myeloid leukemia (AML, also known as acute myelogenous leukemia ) is a cancer of the blood and bone marrow — the spongy tissue inside bones where blood cells are made.

In AML, the bone marrow makes abnormal myeloblasts (a type of white blood cell), red blood cells, or platelets. These abnormal cells crowd out the healthy blood cells, making it hard for blood to do its work.

To read more about AML, click here.

So right about now, you might feel sorry for this guy – but there’s a twist!

In order to treat the AML, this gentleman got a bone marrow transplant – and after the transplant, his delusions and paranoia almost completely disappeared.

“Years later, ‘he is completely off all medication and shows no psychiatric symptoms,’ [said Dr. Tsuyoshi Miyaoka, a psychiatrist in Japan who treated him.”]

In other words, his schizophrenia seemingly vanished!

While the article is careful to place a disclaimer about relying on one case to determine cause and effect, it does bring up some complementary evidence that suggests there is correlation between the immune system and psychiatric disorders.

“A bone-marrow transplant essentially reboots the immune system. Chemotherapy kills off your old white blood cells, and new ones sprout from the donor’s transplanted blood stem cells. It’s unwise to extrapolate too much from a single case study, and it’s possible it was the drugs the man took as part of the transplant procedure that helped him. But his recovery suggests that his immune system was somehow driving his psychiatric symptoms.”

The article goes on to outline a few citations:

  • In the late 19th century, physicians noticed that when infections tore through psychiatric wards, the resulting fevers seemed to cause an improvement in some mentally ill and even catatonic patients.
  • Another case study relates how a woman’s psychotic symptoms — she had schizoaffective disorder, which combines symptoms of schizophrenia and a mood disorder such as depression — were gone after a severe infection with high fever.
  • Modern doctors have also observed that people who suffer from certain autoimmune diseases, like lupus, can develop what looks like psychiatric illness. These symptoms probably result from the immune system attacking the central nervous system or from a more generalized inflammation that affects how the brain works.

So while none of this is conclusive yet – there is a pattern that at the very least suggests a probably link between the immune system and psychotic symptoms. 

This NYT article is just another piece of the puzzle that could lead scientists and researchers to dig into root causes of both rare autoimmune diseases AND psychological disorders.

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