Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis diagnosis helps teen turn her life around, finish dux of her school
A pair of brains with the rare brain disease. The condition continues to confound doctors. (Supplied: Pediatrics)
A Sydney teenager who was wrongly diagnosed with a string of mental illnesses has survived a serious brain disease and graduated dux of her school.
- The condition was the subject of the best-selling book and Netflix film Brain on Fire
- Treatment involves risky medication and a blood plasma treatment
- Mariana Tana overcame her illness and graduated high school with distinction
Mariana Tana, 18, was afflicted by auditory and visual hallucinations, seizures, nausea and headaches at the age of 15.
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Even ambulance officers didn’t believe her.
“They said that’s not how seizures usually work and I was just putting it on,” she said.
Mariana Tana (R) went on a risky course of medication and a blood plasma treatment and eventually graduated. (Supplied)
The symptoms were so severe Ms Tana was unable to attend school and attempted to take her own life.
Psychiatrists diagnosed different conditions including schizophrenia, bipolar and multiple personality disorder.
“It was frightening, I convinced myself I was crazy,” Ms Tana said.
“That what I was seeing was so out of the ordinary that there’s something mentally wrong with me.”
But the problem was physical, not mental, and in some cases it’s fatal.
Ms Tana was referred to Professor David Brown, the Director of Immunopathology at NSW Health Pathology’s Institute of Clinical Pathology and Medical Research at Westmead Hospital.
He discovered antibodies in her blood and suspected they were attacking healthy brain cells.
He diagnosed an extremely rare and relatively newly identified autoimmune disease, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis that causes inflammation of the brain.
Professor David Brown discovered Ms Tana’s antibodies were attacking her healthy brain cells. (ABC News: Nicole Chettle)
The case was challenging because Ms Tana didn’t present with typical signs of autoimmune encephalitis.
The condition was first described 10 years ago — it continues to baffle doctors and inspired the best-selling book, Brain on Fire, that was also made into a Netflix drama produced by Charlize Theron.
Ms Tana was prescribed a range of treatments that sometimes carry serious side effects.
“I often say to patients these drugs suppress your immune system,” Professor Brown said.
“You can die from them. [But] the nature of these illnesses if they’re not picked up early enough is that the damage can become permanent.”
Slowly, Ms Tana’s condition improved after she was prescribed a cocktail of medication and received a blood plasma treatment.
“It was life changing,” she said.
“I didn’t have as many physical symptoms. I wasn’t in pain all of the time. I still had headaches but they weren’t as bad. And I could do day-to-day things.”
After dropping out of school, Ms Tana returned to her studies and completed the coursework for Year 11 in two weeks.
She went on to complete year 12 as dux of her school, SEDA College in Redfern.
“It was so exciting for me to feel good after so long of not thinking I’d achieve anything,” she said.
She is hoping to study writing and counselling at university.
Professor Brown said more research is needed, because a small number of patients being treated for psychosis for the first time may instead be suffering from encephalitis.
“There are people for whom the diagnosis comes too late and end up with permanent disability because of possible delayed treatment,” he said.
He is proud of his patient.
“To see someone go from not being able to go to school to going back to school, topping her class, is great.”