Common cause of brain inflammation often overlooked

PEMBROKE PINES, Fla. – Encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, is rare,  but when it strikes it can be very serious.

An autoimmune form of the condition can lead to severe long-term health issues and even death if not diagnosed and treated early.

For the first ten years of her life, Nicole Lopez was an active, normal child.

“Happy, outgoing, always the life of the party,” Nicole’s mother, Vivienne Lopez, said.

All of that suddenly changed in April 2022; Nicole became inconsolable.

“And when I asked her ‘What’s wrong Nicole?’ she said ‘I don’t feel like myself, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. My body is not processing.’ I said, ‘What do you mean by that?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know,’ and I said, ‘Well, explain it’ and she said, ‘I think I’m dying!’ That was when my world fell apart,” Lopez said.

Specialists at Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital diagnosed Nicole with Anti-NMDA Receptor Encephalitis, one of the most common causes of encephalitis.

“It’s an autoimmune condition of the nervous system where antibodies are produced against NMDA receptors, so basically it’s brain attack on NMDA receptors in the brain which produces a variety of symptoms that progresses very fast,” said Dr. Areeba Basit, a pediatric neurologist.

It starts with flu-like symptoms, and then suddenly shifts to memory deficits, sleep disorders, speech dysfunction, cognitive and behavioral disturbances, seizures, movement disorders, vision impairment, hearing impairment, and loss of consciousness — and patients may even stop breathing.

Basit said it’s not clear why the immune system goes haywire and starts producing antibodies that attack the NMDA receptors but there are theories.

“A combination of environmental factors genetic predisposition, that could perhaps cause this auto-immunity to develop,” Basit said.

After several weeks in the hospital followed by intensive physical therapy, now 11-year-old Nicole is back to her happy, playful self.

“It feels amazing, I still look at her in disbelief that we went through that horrible phase but she’s pretty much come back 100% and I couldn’t be happier,” Lopez said.

The majority of cases of Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis occur in young adults and children, although cases have been diagnosed in people in their 80s. Also, girls and women are approximately four times more likely to be affected than boys and men.

About the Authors:

Kristi Krueger has built a solid reputation as an award-winning medical reporter and effervescent anchor. She joined Local 10 in August 1993. After many years co-anchoring the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m., Kristi now co-anchors the noon newscasts, giving her more time in the evening with her family.

Veteran journalist Kathleen Corso is the special projects producer for Local 10 News.