What Is Autoimmune Brain Stem Encephalitis?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Brain On Fire" by Susannah Cahalan. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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What is autoimmune brain stem encephalitis? Why did the doctors think Susannah Cahalan might have it?

Autoimmune brain stem encephalitis is a condition where the immune system attacks the brain stem. It is an inflammation or swelling condition that can cause serious impairments.

Read more about why doctors thought Susannah may have had autoimmune brain stem encephalitis or another brain stem condition.

Appearance of Autoimmune Brain Stem Encephalitis

Susannah looks forward to her walks around the floor, but by this time she’s lost key parts of her brain function, as well as a fair amount of motor control. When her cousin Hannah gives her a birthday present, Susannah can no longer tear off the wrapping paper, nor can she recognize the author’s name on the cover of the book, though it’s a writer she knows well. To Hannah, Susannah appears like she has Parkinson’s disease. 

Susannah exhibits troubling new symptoms at the beginning of her second week in the hospital. She slurs her words and her tongue twists when she speaks, as if it’s too big for her mouth. She drools and her tongue hangs out. She can’t drink out of a normal cup and speaks in garbled sentences that degenerate into grunts. She’s also making continuous chewing motions and weird grimaces, while her arms keep stiffening out in front of her. Her team suspects that these symptoms, along with her elevated blood pressure and heart rate, indicate a problem in the brainstem or limbic system. But could it be autoimmune brainstem encephalitis?

Medical Aside

The brainstem is one of the oldest and most primitive parts of the brain. It controls life-or-death functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. 

Diagnosing which part of the brain is responsible for a certain behavior is difficult, as one behavior may be controlled by many different areas of the brain. If one area goes out, many connections are altered. This is why diagnosing autoimmune brain stem encephalitis is important.

What Is Autoimmune Brain Stem Encephalitis?

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain On Fire" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Brain On Fire summary :

  • How a high-functioning reporter became virtually disabled within a matter of weeks
  • How the author Cahalan recovered through a lengthy process and pieced together what happened to her
  • How Cahalan's sickness reveals the many failures of the US healthcare system

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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