A North East psychiatrist has praised the courage of a Gateshead woman for speaking up about her role in pioneering research that may have identified a potential cure for some forms of psychosis.
A study supported by Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust (NTW) has found that up to one in 11 cases of psychosis may stem from antibodies attacking the brain.
Findings published in the Lancet Psychiatry suggest that people diagnosed with psychotic illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, could in fact have a treatable immune disorder.
NTW, one of the country’s largest mental health and disability trusts, signed up to help researchers at the University of Oxford gather blood samples from 228 people affected by first-time psychosis.
Principal investigator for the study in NTW was Dr Iain Macmillan, consultant psychiatrist with the Early Intervention in Psychosis Service. He has praised Gateshead woman, Sarah Galloway, for sharing her story about psychosis and her role in the study.
Dr Macmillan, who works out of Monkwearmouth Hospital in Sunderland, said: “We send our very best wishes to Sarah as she deserves enormous respect for acting as a public advocate for this study and sharing her experiences”.
“As an Early Intervention in Psychosis service, we were very happy to support the study, which was developed by the Oxford University department. Sarah was one of a number of North East people who agreed to take part.
“People with a first episode of psychosis were offered the opportunity to take part by having blood samples taken, and many were good enough to agree, so we recruited into the study really well. The blood tests were a core part of the study. As she was found to have positive test results, Sarah was treated jointly with the team in Oxford, and we are absolutely delighted that she is making such a good recovery.”
Ms Galloway, has told BBC News how the blood test shone a new light on what might have been causing her psychosis – resulting in new treatment.
The 25-year-old told the BBC how it was during the final year of her chemistry degree that her mental health deteriorated in a “matter of days”.
She said: “I hallucinated that my body has morphed spiders’ legs of rabbit ears, I’ve seen them there, I’ve felt them there.
“I get strange ideas in my head that someone is trying to kill me or I have to kill someone, and then a lot of it has resulted in self-harm.”
Sarah was sectioned and diagnosed with bipolar disorder, to be treated with anti-psychotic medication, the BBC reported.
But then a blood sample taken for the study showed that antibodies were attacking the surface of Sarah’s brain and stopping them from functioning the way they should. The findings prompted doctors to change her treatment, giving her medication to suppress her immune system.
Dr Macmillan said: “We don’t understand psychosis completely at the moment, but this offers a potential cure for some people who might have psychotic symptoms. We see all psychotic illness as treatable, and this study may help to explain why some people don’t respond to conventional treatments.
“It offers a completely different perspective on psychosis and brings it back to being a brain disorder that may be triggered by different stressors. It offers a completely different angle on treatment and has huge potential.”
He added: “This was very much a team effort and shows the value of our research networks. Through the great work of Dr Belinda Lennox and her team at Oxford University, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR): North East and North Cumbria team, and NTW’s EIP staff, we were able to ensure that Sarah got access to the best treatment available.
“I am pleased to say that we are just about to start recruitment for the follow-up study, which should answer more of the questions we have, particularly about the treatment options if people have the antibodies.
“There is so much we don’t understand about mental health problems, and NTW’s active support for research is hugely important in developing new treatments and improving outcomes for the people we care for.”
The University of Oxford study, led by Dr Lennox, studied blood samples from people across the UK. Scientists found that patients experiencing psychosis were more likely to test positive for antibodies that attack the NMDA receptor, which helps brain cells communicate with each other.