‘Brain on Fire’: Autoimmune disease, not demon possession

by | Nov 14, 2012 | 0 comments

Were the countless cases of “demonic possession” that have frightened people through history actually manifestations of a rare autoimmune disease with symptoms ranging from numbness, paranoia, and erratic behavior to hallucinations and catatonia?

This was one of the possibilities raised today during a fascinating Fresh Air interview with Susannah Cahalan, a young New York Post reporter who chronicles her trip to hell and back in her new book Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, by Susannah Cahalan

Cahalan told Fresh Air:

I’ve talked to many people who’ve had this disease, and one woman I spoke to actually asked for a priest because she said, ‘The devil is inside of me. I need it out.’ A little girl was grunting — they had a monitor in her room — and she was grunting so unnaturally that her parents looked at each other and said, ‘Is she, is she possessed?’

Eventually, Cahalan was diagnosed by Dr. Souhel Najjar as having Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis and she went on to publish her story in the New York Post (“My mysterious lost month of madness,” October 4, 2009).

Update: Susannah Cahalan speaking in 2013 at TEDxAmsterdamWomen.

This video (sorry, an NBC Flash version was all I could find) is a “Today’s Medical Mysteries” segment with Meredith Vieira from NBC’s Today show on January 15, 2010. Susannah Cahalan is joined by NYU Langone Medical Center Associated Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Kenneth Alper who talks about this new category of psychiatric disorder.

And this last segment is from the Today show this morning with Willie Geist. In it, Susannah Cahalan is joined by Bill Gavigan and his daughter Emily. Emily was suffering from the same disorder as Cahalan — but it was initially misdiagnosed as schizophrenia.

Susannah Cahalan’s website is SusannahCahalan.com.

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