A woman trapped in her own mind for two decades has woken up and can be with her family again thanks to a revolutionary new treatment.
April Burrell was only 21 when she experienced a traumatic event in 1995 while studying accounting at the University of Maryland, USA, which left her with constant visual and auditory hallucinations.
She was diagnosed with a severe form of schizophrenia, a devastating mental illness that dramatically alters patients’ sense of reality.
April spent the next 20 years in a cationic state, unable to recognize her family and attend to her every need at a New York mental hospital.
Until one day she woke up thanks to a team of medics who treated her for lupus – a condition where they discovered her immune system was attacking her brain.
Her doctors hope the discovery could help treat hundreds of patients in a similar situation.
A woman in the US awoke from a catatonic state after medics discovered her condition was actually caused by a treatable condition in which her immune system mistakenly attacked her brain in a discovery that could give hope to other patients (stock image)
Professor Sander Markx, director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University, was among the doctors who treated April.
In a bizarre coincidence, he told the Washington Post how he had met April when he was just a medical student, and the memory of her stayed with him.
“She’d just stare and just stand there,” he said. She wouldn’t shower, she wouldn’t go out, she wouldn’t smile, she wouldn’t laugh. And the nursing staff had to physically maneuver her.’
Nearly two decades later, Professor Markx would meet April again after one of his students went to the same mental hospital and spoke of meeting the same woman.
Shocked that there had been no improvement in 20 years, Professor Markx spoke to her family and assembled a team of experts to conduct a full analysis of her condition.
Professor Sander Markx, director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University, was among the doctors who treated the woman and said there could be other ‘forgotten’ patients who could be helped in the same way
They found traces of lupus in her blood work.
About 50,000 Britons and 1.5 million people in the US are said to suffer from the long-term autoimmune disease. More women than men suffer from the condition.
The cause is not fully known, but a viral infection, some medications, sunlight, puberty, and menopause are all considered possible causes.
It is not known whether April’s previous traumatic experience had caused lupus, or whether the development of the disease was a coincidence.
Brain scans showed evidence that April’s immune system was attacking her temporal lobes, which are vital for processing information and emotions, as well as language.
April’s case was unusual because lupus normally attacks areas such as the skin, joints, kidneys and heart, not the brain.
And in her case, the condition only attacked the brain, meaning there were no other more obvious symptoms that she had the condition.
But now that it was found, the disease could be treated.
The process was long and arduous. April had to undergo immunotherapy with powerful drugs to restore her immune system.
This treatment would eventually last for a year, due to the need to take a month-long break between rounds of medication to allow the immune system to recover.
Tests that required her to draw a clock — a common way of measuring cognitive ability — showed promise.
Prior to treatment, April’s drawings resembled those of a demented patient – meaningless scribbles.
But slowly, over the months that followed, she began to draw half a dial, then a near-perfect dial.
Then, after a year of treatment, April woke up in 2020 and was able to meet her family again in 2021 after Covid visitation restrictions were lifted.
Her brother, Guy Burrell, recalled, “When she got in there you would have thought she was a brand new person.
“She knew all of us, remembered different things from when she was a kid.”
While a source of joy for one family, April’s recovery may also bring hope to hundreds of other patients who may be stuck in a similar mental state from a treatable condition.
While experts suspect that the proportion of patients whose catatonic state is caused by an autoimmune disease such as lupus is small, Professor Markx said this should be considered.
“These are the forgotten souls,” he said. “We’re not only improving the lives of these people, but we’re bringing them back from a place I didn’t think they could come back to.”
Doctors in New York have already found 200 patients in care in the state similar to April who could benefit, and similar research is underway in the UK and Germany.
WHAT IS SCHIZOPHRENIA?
Schizophrenia is a chronic and serious mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves.
People with schizophrenia can seem like they’ve lost touch with reality.
The cause of schizophrenia is not understood and is believed to be a mix of genetics (hereditary), abnormalities in brain chemistry, and/or possible viral infections and immune disorders.
Symptoms of schizophrenia usually begin between the ages of 16 and 30. In rare cases, children also have schizophrenia.
The symptoms of schizophrenia fall into three categories: positive, negative, and cognitive.
Positive symptoms are disorders that are “added” to the person’s personality and include:
- Thought disorders (unusual or dysfunctional ways of thinking)
Negative symptoms are abilities that are “lost” in the person’s personality and include:
- ‘Flat affect’ (reduced expression of emotions through facial expression or tone of voice)
- Decreased feelings of pleasure in everyday life
- Difficulty starting and sustaining activities
Cognitive symptoms are changes in their memory or other aspects of thinking and include:
- Difficulty focusing or paying attention
- Problems with ‘working memory’
- Poor ability to understand and use information to make decisions
Figures suggest that about one percent of the world’s population suffers from schizophrenia, with about two million in the US.
Source: National Institute of Mental Health