In a new case study published in the Journal of Central Nervous System Disease, researchers from North Carolina State University describe an adolescent diagnosed with rapid onset schizophrenia who was later found to have Bartonella henselae infection.

Bartonella is a bacteria most commonly known for its role in cat scratch disease.

The case adds to the growing body of evidence that Bartonella infection can mimic a host of chronic health conditions, including mental illness, and could open up new avenues of research into bacterial or microbial causes of psychiatric disorders.

There are at least 30 different known species of Bartonella, and 13 of these have been found to affect humans. Until recently, the bacteria was believed to be a short-lived (or self-limiting) infection.

Bartonella is notorious for “hiding” in the linings of blood vessels, but with the invention of new, more sensitive diagnostic tools, the bacteria has been detected in the blood or cerebrospinal fluid of patients with a variety of neurological symptoms. In fact, Bartonella has been found in individuals diagnosed with chronic illnesses ranging from migraines to seizures to rheumatoid illnesses.

In this case study, an adolescent who presented with sudden-onset psychotic behavior was initially diagnosed with schizophrenia. The patient was seen and treated by numerous specialists and therapists over an 18-month period; however, all conventional treatments for both psychosis and autoimmune disorders failed.

Finally a physician recognized the patient’s skin lesions as those often associated with the Bartonella infection. The patient tested positive for the bacteria and was given combination antimicrobial chemotherapy which led to a full recovery.

“This case is interesting for a number of reasons,” said Dr. Ed Breitschwerdt, Melanie S. Steele Distinguished Professor of Internal Medicine at NC State and lead author of the case report.

“Beyond suggesting that Bartonella infection itself could contribute to progressive neuropsychiatric disorders like schizophrenia, it raises the question of how often infection may be involved with psychiatric disorders generally,” he said.

“Researchers are starting to look at things like infection’s role in Alzheimer’s disease, for example. Beyond this one case, there’s a lot of movement in trying to understand the potential role of viral and bacterial infections in these medically complex diseases. This case gives us proof that there can be a connection, and offers an opportunity for future investigations.”

Source: North Carolina State University