It’s not always about some serotonin imbalance… let’s pay more attention to neurology

I get articles recommended by my Anroid phone, I assume based on an algorithm that performs some sort of machine learning model based on my browsing history. I actually like this feature, because I find the recommendations often actually interesting. So thumbs up for machine learning!

Today I came across an article about a woman with recurring severe depression, and in her case for many years no medical tests were performed, and her psychiatrist kept prescribing her different kinds of antidepressants, without considering any other potential causes or treatments. This reminds me of my own experience with autoimmune encephalitis, luckily I did get treated after two years from my first hospitalization in the psychiatric unit, not after more than a decade. In the case of this woman, eventually a brain tumour of a significant size was found, in 2019. She had recurring episodes of severe depression starting from 2002. As I understood, it’s not possible to find out at this point when the tumour actually originated, and whether it was the cause of depression, but it’s clear from the story that after the treatment of the tumour, the woman’s life significantly improved – she went back to her scientific career, finding a job as a scientist in a biotech firm. She got married, resumed activities she used to enjoy, and was weaned off antidepressants. Given these observations, it seems to me that the tumour and her depression were not just a correlation, but there is a causation here.

Unfortunately it seems rare that psychiatrists would order any medical tests even in the case of treatment resistant depression. I had to switch a few family doctors, and in the end went to one whom my mother knows for decades, and she agreed to order an MRI for me, and blood tests for thyroid hormones, infections, and antibodies. My psychiatrist never proposed to do any tests. Only after I received back the results, and some of them were abnormal, specifically the antibody levels, I was able to refer myself to neurology. Seems that we, psychiatric patients, have to often be very proactive in demanding medical testing. For this reason I think it is important to be aware of cases where depression was resistant to standard antidepressant treatments, but later on a specific medical cause was found.

Not ‘just depression.’ She seemed trapped in a downward mental health spiral.

  • Blaine’s first bout of depression occurred in 2002 when she was in her first year of a doctoral program in materials science at the University of California at Santa Barbara
  • She was prescribed Prozac, recovered and returned to California. Six months later she left school for good and found full-time work in a coffee shop
  • In 2005, Blaine began working as a research associate at a polymer film company
  • Her illness seemed to follow a pattern: after a few years the antidepressant inexplicably stopped working; her psychiatrist would prescribe a new drug and she would get better
  • In 2018 Blaine had lost her job of 10 years and she seemed trapped in a downward spiral
  • She left her job as a research scientist in 2018 and began working as a server at a variety of restaurants in Charlottesville
  • By late summer Blaine had developed what she assumed were frequent migraine headache, sometimes her balance was off and she complained that her vision had deteriorated and she needed new glasses, psychiatric medication was not effective
  • On Jan. 2 2019, a hospital psychiatrist doubled the dose of her antidepressant
  • Several days later Blaine suddenly collapsed and began vomiting, at the ER where she was diagnosed with a “vasovagal episode” — fainting that results from certain triggers including stress
  • Her sister and mother insisted doctors take a closer look, Blaine underwent an MRI scan of her brain
  • MRI findings showed a tumor the size of an orange had invaded the right frontal lobe of Blaine’s brain, there was evidence of herniation, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when the brain is squeezed out of position
  • During a 10-hour operation, University of Virginia neurosurgeon Ashok Asthagiri removed a grade 2 astrocytoma, a slow-growing malignancy that he said “could have been there for years.”
  • “especially in the setting of mental illness,” the neurosurgeon cautioned, “it is easy to disregard symptoms that maybe should be evaluated.” Doctors “need to be vigilant. Once [a patient] gets labeled, everything is viewed as a mental health problem.”
  • After recovering from surgery, Blaine underwent radiation and chemotherapy; she finished treatment in December 2019
  • Recently Blaine was hired as a scientist at a biotech firm. She has resumed the activities she previously enjoyed: rowing, cooking and walking her dogsHer psychological health has improved significantly and her new psychiatrist is weaning her off her antidepressant

More articles on this subject:

Why are women with brain tumours being dismissed as attention-seekers?

  • Women with serious medical conditions are more likely than men to have their symptoms attributed to depression and anxiety
  • Historically, women’s health has been viewed with a “bikini approach”, the primary focus being breasts and the reproductive system
  • One study drew data from 35,875 cardiac patients, 41% of them women, across nearly 400 US hospitals. It found that women faced a higher risk of dying in hospital, subsequent heart attacks, heart failure, and stroke. They were less likely to have an ECG within 10 minutes and to receive crucial medications. And women younger than 65 years old are more than twice as likely to die from a heart attack than men of the same age
  • A Bias Against Women in the Treatment of Pain, found that women were less likely to receive aggressive treatment when diagnosed, and were more likely to have their pain characterised as “emotional,” “psychogenic” and therefore “not real”

Woman misdiagnosed with anxiety actually had a brain tumour the size of a tennis ball

  • Laura Skerritt, 22, began suffering migraines, sickness and psychosis and was told her symptoms were caused by anxiety, depression – and even bi-polar disorder
  • She was prescribed anti-depressants but the medication had no effect on her condition which continued to deteriorate
  • By November 2018, the young swimming instructor, from Templecombe, Somerset, was struggling to walk and was having seizures.
  • A scan at Yeovil District Hospital revealed a tennis ball-sized brain tumour

Brain tumor revealed by treatment-resistant depression

  • The 54-year-old woman had been depressed for 6 months, but treatment with the antidepressant fluoxetine and the anti-anxiety medication bromazepam was discontinued after 5 months because these were not found to be effective
  • She had suicidal thoughts, admitted self-accusation due to ineffectiveness in her job, and lost interest in her usual past times
  • A neurological examination was normal. However, a brain CT scan and MRI revealed meningiomatosis with a giant meningioma–the most common primary benign brain tumour–in her left frontal lobe
  • The patient underwent emergency surgery, and made a recovery. The depressive symptoms disappeared within one month
  • Recommendation – brain scan should be performed if the patient presents a late onset of depressive syndrome after 50 years of age, if a diagnosis of treatment-resistant depression is made or if the patient is apathetic

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Neuropsych Amateur

Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia for a year. Later on received the correct diagnosis of autoimmune encephalitis (Hashimoto's Encephalitis) in April 2017. This is me trying to understand this autoimmune disease, what led to it, and why it took so long to diagnose.

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