A Young Reporter Chronicles Her ‘Brain On Fire’


In 2009, Susannah Cahalan was a healthy 24-year-old reporter for the New York Post, when she began to experience numbness, paranoia, sensitivity to light and erratic behavior. Grasping for an answer, Cahalan asked herself as it was happening, “Am I just bad at my job — is that why? Is the pressure of it getting to me? Is it a new relationship?”

But Cahalan only got worse — she began to experience seizures, hallucinations, increasingly psychotic behavior and even catatonia. Her symptoms frightened family members and baffled a series of doctors.

After a monthlong hospital stay and $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans that proved inconclusive, Cahalan was seen by Dr. Souhel Najjar, who asked her to draw a clock on a piece of paper. “I drew a circle, and I drew the numbers 1 to 12 all on the right-hand side of the clock, so the left-hand side was blank, completely blank,” she tells Fresh Air’s Dave Davies, “which showed him that I was experiencing left-side spatial neglect and, likely, the right side of my brain responsible for the left field of vision was inflamed.”

As Najjar put it to her parents, “her brain was on fire.” This discovery led to her eventual diagnosis and treatment for anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease that can attack the brain. Cahalan says that doctors think the illness may account for cases of “demonic possession” throughout history.

Cahalan’s new memoir is called Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness.

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Written By: NPR – Fresh Air from WHYY
continue to source article at npr.org


  1. Cahalan says that doctors think the illness may account for cases of “demonic possession” throughout history 
    Let’s hope the Vatican is told about this…

  2. That’s like Mr.Mohammed in East London who exorcises Jinns, only on a grander, more organised scale;  I wonder if they charge through the nose, like Mr.Mohammed? 
     Most of us run to the doctor’s surgery with a slightest sneeze or cough but the religious folk,even when  confronted by a much serious condition, think: I must get me a priest, where is that number of that new hotline the priest was mentioning last Sunday?  You wonder what it will take for people like this to come out of the mental caves they still inhabit in the 21st century.
    Thanks for the link, bluebird.

  3.   “I drew a circle, and I drew the numbers 1 to 12 all on the right-hand
    side of the clock, so the left-hand side was blank, completely blank,”

    This ” split brain ” reaction to the clock rest is not uncommon and treated in books by Damasio and/or Gazzaniga, though the cause is severing the corpus callosum as a epileptic relief. Someone posited that the callosum  is a recent evolutionary addition and we all were of ” two minds, ” so to speak, at one time and with the direct line to god(s) coming from the other side of our head. 

  4. Mental maladies are some of the last remaining taboos. Because we still know so little about how the mind works, we’re likely to misdiagnose symptoms; sometimes, as in the middle ages, we treat victims as though they were at fault for their condition, or that it was the devil’s fault.

    A good guide to how the definition of “madness” has changed , of how who is considered “insane” has shifted, and how this definition/categorization will probably continue to shift in the future, is Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason.

    In college, I once shared a house with a friend who had a psychotic incident similar to the one described in the OP. She stormed into my room one evening, claiming that there were people coming to kill her. Sweating and yet feeling cold at the same time, she begged me to protect her from “them”.

    After a while, she calmed down and I called an ambulance for her. She went to hospital and then returned some hours later — with a couple of peole; they turned out to be psychiatrists. Apparently she had a “history” and these two people were her doctors.

    Prior to her little “moment”, she appeared completely normal to me; we had had many an interesting discussion about everything: school; life; friends; family etc. She was a masters student.

    She moved out of the house a few weeks later and I never heard from her again. I must admit though, I slept with one eye open during the time, after her incident, that we lived in the same house.

  5. I’d like to add that, in the US, insurance companies tired of losing money on psychiatric wings of hospitals, “mental wards” and the like simply closed them down.  Medical policy was dictated by insurance company profits (or losses) , and we now face the stark reality of having untreated, undiagnosed, un-cared for mental patients walking the streets all day all night all year.

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