The immune system and psychosis

Following this month’s story in the media on a newly discovered connection between the immune system and psychosis, we look at an overview of the research and follow it up with expert opinion from our Clinical Director, Rhona MacKenzie.

The study, reported by the BBC and released through general medical journal, Lancet Psychiatry, was untaken by researchers at Oxford University. It showed that 1 in 11 cases of psychosis may involve antibodies attacking parts of the brain.

A moderate sample size of 228 people took part in the research, with the strongest evidence showing that antibodies were attacking the NMDA receptor which helps brain cells communicate with each other.

The implications of this research could be far reaching: it could open up new avenues for research and treatment and provide new hope for those that have been affected by psychosis.

Deepdene Care Clinical Director, Rhona MacKenzie, discusses the research further:

It is important to stress that this research isn’t attempting to provide a comprehensive answer for all cases of psychosis. Therefore a narrower perspective must be taken.

Although the research found only 3% of psychosis sufferers who partook in the research to have the immune disorder, it is still a dramatic breakthrough for the field. Mainly because if we can provide a correct, albeit considerably different, course of treatment for even just 3% of those suffering from psychosis globally then we are moving in the right direction in terms of eliminating this debilitating condition that disrupts peoples lives and distorts their reality.

At this moment in time, if the research is indeed applicable on a larger scale, then people are, as we speak, continuing to slip through the net and receiving incorrect diagnoses and treatment with antipsychotic medications.

Just think how many people could be saved from months, if not years, of expensive, unnecessary and inappropriate treatment thanks to this new research.

Now the impetus is there – let’s build on it

Now that the research has pointed us in the right direction, we need to begin investigating the influences that physiological imbalances have on brain chemistry and its effects on mental health.

It is fairly common knowledge that exercise produces natural endorphins in the brain, which boost mood; ingested sugar boosts energy and so on. But what do we know about other secretions in the brain? The research could be more detailed and endless…or simple causations quickly discovered and this could lead us to a greater understanding of mental illness.

The only thing separating us from boundless potential causations and treatments is scientific proof and evidence

The research opens new doors to destigmitising mental illness

What I see here is more than just the possibility of new treatment methods and an elimination of unsuitable methods for some cases of psychosis.

Just like anyone who works in the mental health field, I am a huge advocate of destigmatising mental illness, and this research could prove pivotal to the wider public’s understanding of mental health conditions. It might help them to grasp that they are problems that should be treated and respected in a similar fashion to physical maladies.

People understand the immune system and its role in preventing illness. They also understand that a malfunctioning or fully functioning immune system can cause anything from autoimmune diseases to a headache. So if they are able associate that with mental health issues then they might be willing to discuss it more openly. After all, people are less afraid of what they know or what they can rationalise

The research may be the common ground that we so desperately needed in order to show people that, although it can’t be seen, a mental health issue is as real as a cold or a headache.

More research and evidence will help give us a greater understanding and enable us to explain psychiatric symptoms. At the moment psychiatry is too much of a taboo.

Speaking from experience

In terms of physiological effects on brain chemistry, I have witnessed firsthand one of our service user’s disruptive behaviours – which are distressing to both the service users and their carers – having dissipated with a simple travel sickness pill.

Such a remedy, although by no means a replacement for long-term treatment, has fewer side effects than conventional benzodiazephine medication and is non-addictive.

Why does an anti-sickness pill have such an obvious effect by means of reducing symptoms? I don’t know, which compounds my earlier point that more research needs to go into this so that we are better informed and thus better equipped to treat this debilitating illness.