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“Brain on Fire”: Chinese Characters and Western Legend Meet in Encephalitis
CopyFrom: PUMCH UpdateTime: 2019-06-14 Hits: 12 Font Size: SmallBig

A bright red seal, occupying one fourth page, is “stamped” on The Lancet Neurology published in April 2019. Earlier, Professor Guan Hongzhi from Neurology, PUMCH, wrote to the journal, giving an introduction of the Chinese characters “encephalitis” and accompanying it with a self-made seal of the pictographs. The article was online published in Correspondence of the journal, and drew wide attention due to its novelty.  

This short article explained the ancient Chinese characters for “encephalitis”. “Brain”, in shell and bone writing, was represented as  or  . is the main part, showing the head. Its   is like a bag, showing the skull, while   is like sulcus or hair.   means human, showing that the brain is a human organ.   or   shows two fires put together, representing lasting, fierce flames. Combined, the two characters can be interpreted as “brain on fire”.

Encephalitis is a general term for inflammation of the brain, of which viral infection is the most common cause. In autoimmune encephalitis, one’s immune system misjudges the brain as an “enemy” and “attacks” it. Among them, anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis is a common one, a new one that wasn’t discovered and confirmed until 2007.

New York Post writer Susannah Cahalan was once a patient of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. In her autobiography Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness she recorded her battle with the disease supported by medical workers and her family. The book later became a New York Times bestseller, was adapted into a film and widely acclaimed. Fully recovered, Susannah returned to workplace and later initiated an Autoimmune Encephalitis Alliance to push forward the treatment, publicity and social charity related to this disease. She and her Alliance workers can often be seen at some important international conferences on neurology and immunity.

Statistics showed that Susannah was the world’s 217th patient of anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. Neurology, PUMCH, was the first in China (in 2011) to carry out antibody lineage testing for autoimmune encephalitis. Now it boasts China’s largest testable antibody lineage and was also the first to report several new types of autoimmune encephalitis. This disease has been included in China’s First List of Rare Diseases. Taking the opportunity of a rare disease cohort study led by PUMCH, our Neurology is leading a multi-center encephalitis study across the country.

A Chinese seal, an international journal and a bestseller writer… Numerous patients, medical and social workers see their paths crossed due to the disease of encephalitis. We believe under the combined efforts of all these people the “fire” on brain will one day be extinguished.  

The article was online published in Correspondence of The Lancet Neurology.