A groundbreaking Australian study is identifying previously unknown links between the immune system and serious mental illness, and leading to new remedies for conditions formerly thought untreatable.
The successful research is the product of a collaboration between the University of Sydney and Perth-based charity Meeting for Minds [M4M].
One of the beneficiaries is Sydney woman Elle McCabe, who used to struggle every day with mental illness.
“I had no social life, I had very few relationships, I’m very lucky I had close friends and my family who always stood by me,” she said.
“But I never branched outside of that because I couldn’t. I didn’t work, didn’t study.
“I was in bed a lot. I was in constant, chronic pain.”
Ms McCabe suffered from nausea, headaches and stomach problems, and found mental illness symptoms came on after her immune system had been compromised by a virus.
A psychotic episode at the age of 16 was her lowest point.
She said when doctors started treating her immune system, her mental health improved.
“It’s changed my life. I study full time. Not just study. I do well at uni whereas before even being able to read was a struggle,” she said.
“I’ve had a relationship for four years and that’s fantastic. I have great social relationships. I have my own business as well as working part-time.”
The treatment involved a combination of plasma infusion and medications, focusing on the immune system.
Ms McCabe admitted to still struggling occasionally, but nothing like what she used to endure.
“I’ve improved out of sight,” she said
“I feel that I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had this treatment. Or I would be in acute care in a hospital.”
Rethink on links between immune system and mental health
Professor Ian Hickie of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre presented the research to the M4M forum in Perth.
“The key issue there is what’s driving the mental ill health is not so much a change in the brain, but a change in the immune system, an auto-immune disease that’s causing the aberrant behaviour,” he said.
Professor Hickie said immune therapies had already worked for a significant number of cases.
He said the link between a poor immune system and mental illness had previously been thought to be an unusual one, and only present in certain cases.
“It’s not rare, we don’t often look hard enough,” he said.
“We haven’t had in the past the technologies or the laboratory tests to confirm that a number of these disorders, a significant minority of these disorders actually have an immune basis.”
He said the challenge now was to find the right combination of therapies for an individual, as some might require a boost to the immune system, while others a suppression.
The research provided a strong argument for early intervention he said.
Research results an early victory for charity
The research is being funded by Swedish philanthropist Maria Halphen, who set up the Meeting for Minds charity just three years ago.
“It’s fantastic. If I can do something like this it’s huge. But I’m just doing a tiny thing,” she said.
“It’s a wonderful feeling because it’s like a dream we had and here we are with these people. It’s very palpable, it’s real. I think it’s also very sad because it shows there’s a huge need.”
The next step would be to develop international clinical protocols to promote immune therapy as a treatment for mental illnesses.
That was something Ellen McCabe felt happy to be a part of.
“It feel really good, we’re all learning together which I like,” she said.
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 27 May 2016.