Andrew Curry in Nautilus:
PANDAS represents a striking branch of medical research that has been gaining acceptance in recent years, though not without controversy. In a field known as immunopsychiatry, researchers are exploring the possibility that inflammation, or an overactive immune system, is linked to mental disorders that include depression, schizophrenia, and Alzheimers’ disease.
A host of recent genetic and epidemiological studies “have shown that when people are depressed or have psychotic episodes, inflammatory markers are found in their blood,” says Golam Khandaker, a senior clinical research associate at the University of Cambridge, in England, who studies inflammation and the brain.
In the case of PANDAS, when the body reacts to strep infection, parts of the brain that help regulate motion and behavior wind up caught in the crossfire, mistaken for bacterial invaders by cells bent on destroying them. Eliminate the inflammation, some doctors say, and you signal the immune system to stand down, restoring normal brain function.
The emergence of immunopsychiatry is a story of rediscovery, reflecting the twists and turns of mental health treatment over the last century. In the 19th century, mental illness and infectious disease were closely linked. That connection came uncoupled in the 20th century and immunopsychiatry’s argument that infection and inflammation can have a profound impact on the brain has struggled against psychiatric and neurological dogma. Yet emerging insights into mental illness unite the brain, body, and environment in ways that doctors and therapists are finally beginning to understand.