22 February is World Encephalitis Day. Founded by The Encephalitis Society four years ago, it aims to help raise awareness of the disease on an international scale.

In a nutshell, encephalitis refers to the inflammation of the brain. Up until recently, it was thought that encephalitis was simply either a viral or bacterial infection. However, in 2005, research described a new version of the disease: auto-immune or ‘anti-NMDAR encephalitis’, which is caused by antibodies that attack the brain tissue. In all its forms, encephalitis is incredibly rare: herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE), for instance, affects approximately one in 1,000,000 children. Although there are clear treatment routes available, viral encephalitis is incredibly destructive. The virus can cause irreversible damage in the brain, which will continue to impact upon a patient’s quality of life well after their short-term recovery from the disease itself.

Despite its often devastating consequences, the rarity of encephalitis might raise some important questions for those hearing about the disease for the first time, namely: why should we spend our time researching something that affects so few people?

It’s crucial to acknowledge that just because something is rare, it doesn’t mean that it’s not important. I started working on herpes simplex encephalitis during my time as a postdoc, because it’s an incredibly useful paradigm for studying genetic disorders, and human genetics in general. We’re beginning to see that our findings have far-reaching implications for other neurological disorders that may be linked to encephalitis via a crossover of immune mechanisms.

It’s important to reiterate that our current research into encephalitis won’t just improve our knowledge of the disease itself. In many ways, encephalitis tells us the story of how our immune system should work; how it should protect our brain from inflammation and infection, and keep us healthy. It therefore has far-reaching consequences for a range of other, related diseases.

By Vanessa Sancho Shimizu

 

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Dr Vanessa Sancho-Shimizu is a Senior Research Fellow in the Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine. She is currently working on understanding the Mendelian predisposition to rare childhood infections specifically: identifying genes underlying childhood herpes simplex encephalitis (HSE), severe viral infections and invasive meningococcal disease (IMD).

 
 
 
 
 

Imperial College London