How does the brain heal from autoimmune encephalitis and why is there so much variability in the healing process?
December 7, 2022 | by Kara McGaughey, PennNeuroKnow
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The staff at IAES is proud to present to all of you another wonderful article/blog from the amazing team at PennNeuroKnow. Since 2019 IAES has been extremely lucky to be in partnership with the PennNeuroKnow(PNK) team to help us all better understand complex medical issues related to AE and neurology in general. The talented PNK team continues to keep us up-to-date and help clarify the complexities we face each day along our AE journey, and we are eternally grateful! You can find out much more about this stellar group at: https://pennneuroknow.com/
The holy grail! The million-dollar question! How long will it take to get rid of AE, to heal from AE…when will we feel and act ‘normal’ again? Why do we not understand more of the healing process’ from a diagnosis of autoimmune encephalitis?
Kara McGaughey and the team at PennNeuroKnow help us further understand just how complex and individual our brains are!
If you break a bone, your expectations about the healing process and how long it might last will vary depending on the nature and severity of the fracture. For example, a small fracture will come with a completely different timeline for recovery than a compound fracture (where the force of the break causes the bone to pierce through the skin).
Just like broken bones, no two cases of brain injury are exactly the same and the timeline of the healing process depends on the nature and severity of the injury. As such, when we consider healing from brain injuries, like autoimmune encephalitis (AE), the diversity of diagnoses and symptoms leads to a diversity of recovery trajectories, which can make navigating the healing process a confusing and isolating experience. Here, we dive into this diversity, exploring what healing from AE looks like, why the process takes so long, and why it varies so much.
How does the brain heal from autoimmune encephalitis?
“I felt like a robot controlling my body for the first time – speech, thought and movement all under shaky manual control. I felt like my brain was being reacquainted with my body.”
— Alexandrine Lawrie on AE recovery1
Autoimmune encephalitis (AE) is a collection of related conditions in which the body’s immune system produces antibodies that mistakenly attack the brain, causing inflammation. In order to begin the healing process, treatment is needed to shut down the overactive immune system, remove the antibodies mounting the attack, and reduce brain swelling.2-3 To accomplish this, doctors typically rely on a handful of treatments options:
- Corticosteroids to reduce brain inflammation/swelling and immune system activity.
- Blood plasma exchange to remove and replace the harmful antibodies circulating in the blood (which can find their way into the brain).
- Intravenous immunoglobulin (IVIG), which includes helpful antibodies isolated from the blood plasma of thousands of healthy donors.
- Immunosuppressant medications (like Cyclophosphamide and Rituximab) to directly suppress the immune system, if necessary.2-4
Steroids, blood plasma exchange, intravenous immunoglobulin, or a combination of the three represent the most common defense against AE.2,4 These first-line treatments can be helpful for stopping the immune system’s attack on brain tissue and reducing inflammation. Corticosteroids, for example, reduce brain swelling by preventing the production of inflammatory proteins by immune cells. These steroids also help to restore the integrity of the blood-brain barrier, a protective lining that shields the brain from inflammatory cells and harmful antibodies that may be circulating in the bloodstream.5 In AE the blood-brain barrier can spring leaks, which allows antibodies from the bloodstream to penetrate the brain and wreak havoc.6 Closing up any leaks in the barrier that formed as a result of AE disease progression is a critical first step in the healing process.
However, recovery from AE can take time and is often not an abrupt rise and fall of symptoms (Figure 1, left). Instead, while many people do respond to available treatment options, the initial period of healing usually falls short of complete, giving way to a longer and more complicated recovery trajectory (Figure 1, center). For example, first-line therapies fail to resolve symptoms in about 50% of patients with AE, which means that additional and prolonged treatments are often required to suppress the immune system and give the brain an opportunity to repair and recover.4 In these cases, doctors turn to second-line therapies, like immunosuppressants. While having steroids on board promotes brain healing by stopping the leakage of antibodies from the bloodstream into the brain, immunosuppressants, like Rituximab, go after the cells that make the antibodies in the first place.5 When given long-term, Rituximab can be effective at reducing symptoms and keeping AE in remission.2,4
While therapies, like Rituximab, can be incredibly effective, outcomes are still highly variable. Because no two cases of AE are exactly the same, no two recovery trajectories are either (Figure 1, right). Both treatment options and outcomes often depend on details of the AE diagnosis, such as the type of antibody involved. For example, a recent study of 358 patients with AE demonstrated that people with anti-NMDAR antibodies, LGI1 antibodies, and CASPR2 antibodies respond differently to Rituximab immunotherapy.7 These groups of patients with AE caused by different antibodies not only reported differences in symptom relief, but they ultimately reached different levels of day-to-day independence. Nevertheless, regardless of treatment approach and AE diagnosis, early and aggressive therapy is consistently associated with better outcomes. This means that as diagnostic tools and treatments improve, more people with AE have the opportunity to heal.2
How long does the process of healing from autoimmune encephalitis take?
“Good, bad, up, down, round and round;
I feel as though I’m on a merry-go-round.
Full of uncertainty if it will ever stop spinning;
Full of frustration as I remain on my couch sitting.
It’s going to be alright; it’s going to be okay; I will continue the fight day to day.
I will keep the hope and learn to cope;
I will continue my way up this slippery slope with hopes of support and love of some sort.”
— Anonymous on living with AE8
Since people tend to differ in their response to AE treatments, they tend to recover at different paces. For some, AE symptoms decline steadily with continued immunotherapy, leading to recovery within a couple months. Others experience persistent relapses, leading to a recovery timeline on the order of years (Figure 1, right). Research studies show that most patients continue to improve 18 months to 2 years after starting treatment, but there are some people with AE who experience ongoing and life-changing symptoms.9
Similar to how some types of AE respond better or worse to particular treatments, AE diagnosis also affects the timeline of recovery and the risk of recurrence. A recent study followed up with AE patients 3, 6, and 12 months after starting treatment, assessing and comparing their symptoms using a measure of the degree of disability or dependence. Researchers and clinicians found that after three months, two thirds of patients with anti-LGI1 or CASPR2 antibodies recovered to “slight disability” compared to only 30% of patients with anti-NMDAR or other antibody-based AE.10
This persistence of symptoms among patients with anti-NMDAR vs. anti-LGI1 or CASPR2 AE may come from the fact that different AE antibodies carry different risks for relapse. For example, the risk of relapse within two years for anti-NMDAR AE is 12%.9 There are other AE diagnoses, like anti-AMPAR AE, where the relapse rate is even higher, pushing 50-60%.11 This increased risk of relapse is thought to stem from the fact that patients with anti-AMPAR AE often have psychiatric and memory dysfunction that make them less likely to keep up with medications. However, while it may be more prevalent for some types of AE than others, relapse is not a given. These same studies show that patients who receive (and continue) with first-line treatments have a lower risk of recurrence relative to untreated patients.11 Risk of relapse is further decreased in patients who have been given both first- and second-line therapies.5,9 This clear payoff of continued treatment suggests that as we continue to make improvements to AE therapies, there is potential for the percentage of patients reaching recovery to continue to increase.
All in all, vast differences in AE diagnoses and symptoms lead to lots of variability in treatment options, the healing process, and recovery timelines. This diversity of AE trajectories makes setting expectations for the healing process especially difficult. It also highlights the resilience of AE patients, their families, and their support systems who tirelessly endure and advocate despite prolonged uncertainty.
“A dear lady friend of mine (with the same illness) said this great quote that I reflect on frequently:
‘Not every day is good, but there is good in every day.’
And that has been absolutely true.
Each day presents itself with its own challenges and even though I don’t know what the future holds,
I am most calm when I focus on the good one day at a time.
–Amy on her AE journey12
- Lawrie, A. My experience with autoimmune encephalitis: A year of recovery. The Health Policy Partnership (2022). Available at: https://www.healthpolicypartnership.com/my-experience-with-autoimmune-encephalitis-a-year-of-recovery/. (Accessed: 25th October 2022).
- Dinoto, A., Ferrari, S. & Mariotto, S. Treatment options in refractory autoimmune encephalitis. CNS Drugs 36, 919–931 (2022).
- Abboud, H. et al. Autoimmune encephalitis: Proposed best practice recommendations for diagnosis and Acute Management.Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 92, 757–768 (2021).
- Dalmau, J. & Rosenfeld, M. R. Autoimmune encephalitis update. Neuro-Oncology 16, 771–778 (2014).
- Shin, Y.-W. et al. Treatment strategies for autoimmune encephalitis. Therapeutic Advances in Neurological Disorders 11, 1–19 (2018).
- Platt, M. P., Agalliu, D. & Cutforth, T. Hello from the other side: How autoantibodies circumvent the blood–brain barrier in autoimmune encephalitis. Frontiers in Immunology 8, 442 (2017).
- Thaler, F. S. et al. Rituximab treatment and long-term outcome of patients with autoimmune encephalitis. Neurology: Neuroimmunology and Neuroinflammation 8, (2021).
- Fitch, A. AE Warrior Personal Stories Archives. Autoimmune Encephalitis (2022). Available at: https://autoimmune-encephalitis.org/category/ae-warrior-personal-stories/. (Accessed: 25th October 2022).
- Titulaer, M. J. et al. Treatment and prognostic factors for long-term outcome in patients with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis: An observational cohort study. Lancet Neurology 12, 157–165 (2013).
- Seifert-Held, T. et al. Functional recovery in autoimmune encephalitis: A prospective observational study. Frontiers in Immunology 12, 641106 (2021).
- Leypoldt, F., Wandinger, K.-P., Bien, C. G. & Dalmau, J. Autoimmune encephalitis. European Neurological Review 8, 31–37 (2013).
- Amy. Amy’s story. The Encephalitis Society (2021). Available at: https://www.encephalitis.info/amys-story. (Accessed: 25th October 2022).
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