The mysterious case of a catatonic woman who “woke up” after 20 years and could revolutionize psychiatry

Catatonia is a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by motor and consciousness disturbances such as hyperactivity, hallucinations, inability to communicate, etc. Catatonia can be caused by different psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, or medical conditions, such as autoimmune diseases.

After 20 years of being diagnosed with schizophrenia, April Burrell ‘awakened’ from her catatonic state to become a a hopeful clinical case that can improve psychiatry and provide new treatments for patients classified as incurable.

April was 21 when she experienced a traumatic event that changed her life. The Washington Post comments that she was an exceptional and outgoing student, but in 1995, due to the event she experienced, started to develop psychosis with visual and auditory hallucinations and lost the ability to communicate or take care of herself.

was diagnosed with severe schizophrenia “nail often devastating mental illness which affects about 1% of the world’s population and can drastically affect the way patients behave and perceive reality, ”explains the medium.

This was the case of a catatonic woman who “woke up” after 20 years and who could revolutionize psychiatry

Markx sander director of precision psychiatry at Columbia University, met April in the 2000s at Pilgrim Psychiatric Center, a psychiatric hospital where he was a visitor. Markx told The Washington Post that when he met April, she was standing at the nurse’s desk: “She just watched and stood there (…) She didn’t shower, she didn’t go out, she didn’t smile, she didn’t laugh. And the nursing staff had to physically maneuver her.

Locked in her own world, she could only draw doodles, spoke the same thing, did not recognize her family and refused physical contact. Her family thought they had lost her forever.

18 years have passed since that first meeting. The psychiatrist had his own lab and suggested that his research team spend time with the Pilgrim’s patients. “It was deja vu,” he told the outlet, because when they arrived at the hospital, April was standing at the desk like the first time.

This scene surprised Markx, since nearly two decades had passed and the patient showed no signs of improvement . He brought together specialists from around the world to find out what was going on and after carrying out physical exams they realized that he didn’t just have schizophrenia.

Lupus is a chronic autoimmune disease that can affect various organs and systems in the body. In lupus, the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissue, which can lead to inflammation and damage in different parts of the body, such as the joints, skin, kidneys, heart, lungs, and brain. .

His blood tests showed that April had this disease and your immune system he was attacking his body. Brain scans showed that the antibodies damaged the temporal lobes, areas of the brain linked to schizophrenia and psychosis.

Although April’s symptoms were not typical of the disease, there was clear evidence that the disease was present, but it seemed to only affect her brain. After thinking about it, Markx thought the patient’s catatonia was the underlying cause of lupus, not schizophrenia.

The team began treating April’s overactive immune system, and within one to two months she showed signs of improvement. He could now draw figures that demonstrated cognitive progress, but his psychosis remained.

The team lost hope when Markx walked into the room one day and couldn’t understand what he was seeing: “He didn’t look like the person I had known for 20 years who had been so affected,” said he told the Washington Post. He had to look twice to realize that it was April who had woken up after 20 years.

Based on the famous book and film Awakenings of Oliver Sacks, “awakening” occurs when catatonic patients, disconnected from reality, regain consciousness and responsiveness.


April had woken up. In 2020, she was deemed mentally fit to be discharged from the hospital where she lived for nearly two decades. The Washington Post says she remembered her childhood home, her niece and even realized her father had lost his hair.

“It was like coming home,” Markx told the outlet. “We never thought it was possible.”

With this finding , Markx has alerted all medical centers to identify patients with autoimmune diseases. Although they still don’t know how many cases like this exist, the psychiatrist and other doctors believe that there are probably many more people with psychiatric disorders caused by autoimmune problems.

Efforts to find more of these people and change their lives are gaining momentum, and while it’s unclear how many there will be, the results are a potential study to understand what happens in the brain during serious mental illness. As a public health measure, Markx believes that blood tests for different antibodies should be part of the standard psychosis screening protocol.

Emerging research indicates that inflammation and immune dysfunction are potential players in neuropsychiatric conditions including schizophrenia, depression and autism. A study published last year in Molecular Psychiatry, identified 91 psychiatric patients with suspected autoimmune diseases and reported that immunotherapies benefited the majority of them.

There is already another case of a girl who woke up at the age of 21 after being treated by the Markx team. After 10 years of being catatonic, Devine Cruz was able to continue her young life with her mother. Although she still needs support after losing over a decade of her childhood, she writes poetry and wants to help others with their fighting motivations. A fragment of his poetry shared on his instagram said:

“I know you’re struggling, struggling to figure out what’s wrong and what’s right. (…) Take your time my dear, there is no need to rush. You are precious to those around you… You are not alone because the world has beautiful creations made just for you.

Source: Latercera

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