St. Louis on the Air
4:52 pm
Tue February 19, 2013

Brain On Fire: Wash U. Alum Describes Encounter With Rare Autoimmune Disease

In 2009, Susannah Cahalan, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, was a healthy 24-year old journalist at the New York Post.

One day that year, she found herself alone in a hospital room, strapped to her bed and unable to speak.

Cahalan had no memory, at the time, of her month long hospital stay, hallucinations and violent actions.

“(The doctors) became convinced I had bi-polar disorder,” she told host Don Marsh.

Bi-polar disorder was the wrong diagnosis and it wasn’t until she was seen by prominent neurologist Dr. Souhel Najjar that she was correctly diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a condition which can attack the brain.

The test was simple. Dr. Najjar instructed Cahalan to draw a clock on a piece of paper.  She drew the numbers 1 to 12 on the right-hand side of the circle, indicating that the right side of her brain, which is responsible for left field vision, was likely inflamed.

“The doctor took my parents out of the hospital room and told them my brain was on fire,” Cahalan said.

Interview with Susannah Cahalan and Dr. Eugene Stapen

Also joining Marsh was psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Rubin, Professor and Vice-Chair for Education in the Department of Psychiatry of Washington University’s School of Medicine.

“Increasingly, we’re finding certain illnesses, like Susannah’s – we find that these disorders change the brain at the molecular level. (Cahalan’s) disorder is helping us understand that psychiatry and neurology are coming together in trying to understand what leads to very unusual behaviors,” Rubin said.

Susannah Cahalan documents her story in a new book, “Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.”  Earlier this week Cahalan and Rubin joined others for a reading and discussion at Washington University.

Related Event

Susan Cahalan Discussion and Signing
Wednesday, February 20, 2013
7:00 p.m.
Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid

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