When April Burrell was 21 years old, the former high school valedictorian and straight-A accounting student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore developed severe psychosis after a traumatic event. She was then diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia, and “[f]or years, she remained trapped in her mind, unable to communicate or take care of herself.”
In what is being considered a groundbreaking medical breakthrough, after existing in a catatonic state for more than two decades, Burrell finally awakened after receiving targeted treatments for lupus, which was attacking her brain.
This is an especially significant medical discovery since “autoimmune disorders like lupus disproportionately affect women and people of color with more severity.”
This remarkable journey to recovery initially began back in 2000, when then medical student Sander Markx encountered Burrell, “She was the first person I ever saw as a patient,” and the now director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University added “She is, to this day, the sickest patient I’ve ever seen.”
Their paths wouldn’t meet again until almost two decades later, when in 2018, a trainee of Markx, Anthony Zoghbi, met Burrell, relayed the story to his mentor. “Markx was stunned to hear that little had changed for the patient he had seen” eighteen years ago, saying “It was like déjà vu because he starts telling the story…And I’m like, ‘Is her name April?’”
Since Markx now had his own lab, he received consent from the family for a full medical work-up, and “convened a multidisciplinary team of more than 70 experts from Columbia and around the world — neuropsychiatrists, neurologists, neuroimmunologists, rheumatologists, medical ethicists — to figure out what was going on.”
The combined efforts of Markx and his colleagues led them to the discovery that Burrell’s illness, although technically was “clinically indistinguishable from schizophrenia,” she “also had lupus, an underlying and treatable autoimmune condition that was attacking her brain.”
In essence, their “investigations revealed that her immune system was producing antibodies that were attacking her brain, particularly the temporal lobes associated with schizophrenia and psychosis.”
Amazingly enough, after treatment, “[i]n 2020, April was deemed mentally competent to discharge herself from the psychiatric hospital where she had lived for nearly two decades, and she moved to a rehabilitation center.”
This medical discovery has now challenged conventions and understandings, raising questions around just “how many other patients may have been misdiagnosed.” Another multidisciplinary group of experts assembled to study the relationship between psychiatric disorders and autoimmune diseases and were stunned by the results of their research.
Approximately 200 patients who’d been institutionalized for years because of what was believed to be psychiatric issues were identified as people whose “underlying autoimmune and inflammatory processes may be more prevalent in various psychiatric syndromes than previously believed.”
These implications are far-reaching, already reshaping the medical field, “challenging traditional diagnostic and treatment approaches,” and as Markx stated, “These are the forgotten souls,” continuing with “We’re not just improving the lives of these people, but we’re bringing them back from a place that I didn’t think they could come back from.”