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Clinical trial could help identify autoimmune disorder

Some people with schizophrenic symptoms may actually have autoimmune disorder

HOUSTON – A Houston doctor said there are people who have been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but that's really not what they have at all. Shockingly, there could be a cure for people suffering with these symptoms.

Now, a clinical trial at Houston Methodist could help identify an autoimmune disorder that leaves people incapacitated and hearing voices.

Tiffany Baker, 23, no longer communicates. She cannot bathe or brush her own teeth. Her mother, Susan Baker, said Tiffany's whole life is spent writing nonsensical phrases and talking to the voices in her head.

"When the voices are nice, she's laughing, she's joking, she's having a ball," Susan Baker said, "but when the voices are being mean, she is screaming, she is yelling, she's beating her head."

At first glance, it's easy to assume Tiffany Baker is schizophrenic.

"That's kind of what we started looking at to begin with was bipolar psychosis or schizophrenia, but we tried all the different medications for psychosis," Susan Baker said, but nothing has worked.

The Bakers insist there must be an answer because a year and a half ago, Tiffany Baker was a typical, functional woman.

In fact, she graduated from Travis High School and has a driver's license. Now, they're hoping the clinical trial will help her get back to those days.

The trial at Houston Methodist Hospital, under Dr. Joseph Masdeu, is taking 150 patients with similar psychotic symptoms and hoping to conclude they're not psychotic at all.

Masdeu has identified some people with schizophrenic symptoms may actually have an autoimmune disorder called anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.

"They are going to be going to school fine, and then in a few months they become psychotic, they become schizophrenic or they become bipolar," Masdeu said.

Tiffany Baker has not been diagnosed with the autoimmune disorder, but she qualified for the study under Masdau, in part, because her mom describes her change as a quick "switch," and if she is, in fact, suffering from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, Masdeu knows how to switch back.

"It's not that they get a little bit better or their psychosis becomes less pronounced, it's that they get cured," he said.

Here is one woman who was treated for the disorder.

So why can't he give the drugs to Tiffany Baker and immediately rule out the possibility of the autoimmune disease? Masdeu said that's a dangerous way to practice medicine.

"You wouldn't want to give a gun to somebody to be shooting ... in the forest just in any direction, because yes, you may get the deer, but you may get something else that you don't want to get," Masdeu said.

Tiffany Baker donated spinal fluid for medical research that could one day develop a simple blood test for the autoimmune disorder. While researchers are working on that, the Bakers are hopeful they can identify what's ailing Tiffany Baker because they miss her.

"We have had to grieve the loss of our child but she's still here," Susan Baker said. "Now, we have this completely new child that we're trying to make sense of and try to figure out what normalcy looks like."

Masdau said patients like Tiffany Baker are good candidates for this study because she didn't show symptoms of this kind of mental illness in adolescence. Instead, she had that fast and furious "switch" that her friends and family desperately wish they could undo.

Anyone looking for more information on Masdeu's trial can click here.