Doctors may one day be able to cure schizophrenia in the same way they would an immune disorder.

A new study in The Lancet Psychiatry suggests psychosis, which can come with hallucinations, delusions and disturbed thoughts, is linked to the presence of certain antibodies that are also known to cause inflammation in the brain. Researchers from the University of Oxford investigated the idea because the inflammation, called encephalitis, can cause psychosis that then is treatable with medication. “We aimed to investigate whether people with circumscribed schizophrenia-like illnesses have such antibodies” as well, more than the general population.

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The researchers took blood samples from English patients in the early stages of schizophrenia — who had just experienced “first-episode psychosis” — and tested them, finding that they were more likely than healthy control subjects to have certain antibodies, the immune system substances that fight off foreign bodies like viruses. However, the symptoms of the mentally ill patients with the antibodies did not differ from those without, meaning the only way to tell if someone is carrying the potentially dangerous antibodies is to test all patients who present with psychotic symptoms.

Because early intervention and treatment of the antibodies relieves the encephalitis, “the discovery offers fresh hope in terms of new treatment possibilities for people experiencing psychosis,” the University of Oxford said in a statement. And the research team has treated patients with psychosis using this method of immunotherapy.

One such patient, whom the university identified as “Sarah,” described experiencing a psychotic episode as well as memory, sleep and emotional problems: “My mood was in total flux, swinging from hallucinations and insomnia to sleeping all day and getting severely depressed.” After doctors discovered the autoimmune element, she was treated and “I am regaining nearly all of my previous function.”

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The Oxford professor who led the study, Belinda Lennox, said in the university statement that her research team will be starting a trial in 2017 that will determine whether removing the antibodies in question will treat schizophrenia in the same way it treats encephalitis.

Source: Lennox BR, Palmer-Cooper EC, Pollak T, et al. Prevalence and clinical characteristics of serum neuronal cell surface antibodies in first-episode psychosis: a case-control study. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2016.

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