Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Guillain-Barre Syndrome: Antibodies Gone Awry

A mother's proudest moment may be when she sees her young child take his or her very first steps.  She may experience great joy as she watches her child grow and develop.  Now imagine if the tables were turned, and instead the child was watching his or her mother learn to walk.  This was the case for Mrs. Pam Novak.  

When Novak was a teenager, her mother, Charmaine Swartz, underwent a surgical procedure.  After the surgery, she contracted a bacterial infection, which most likely triggered the onset of Guillian-Barre syndrome.  This syndrome left Swartz temporarily paralyzed and her daughter upset as she had to endure her mother re-learning how to take her first step.  

Schwann cells wrapped around the axon of a neuron
Guillain-Barre syndrome is a rare neurological autoimmune disorder, meaning that the immune system attacks its own cells.  In this case, the antibodies of the immune system are the culprit.  Antibodies are "Y-shaped" cells that are produced by white blood cells and are responsible for 'tagging' foreign objects for destruction or for eliminating intruders on their own.  In Guillain-Barre syndrome, an unknown cause triggers antibodies to attack nerve cells.  The trigger for this attack remains unknown, but most often the syndrome occurs after viral or bacterial infections or vaccinations.  In the most common form of this syndrome, the antibodies attack Schwann cells.  These cells are present in the peripheral nervous system, which includes sensory and motor nerve cells throughout the body and excludes the brain and spinal cord.  These cells wrap themselves around the axon of neuronal cells, which is called the myelin sheath.  Imagine that the axon of a neuron is the metal part of an electrical wire.  It sends electrical currents to other areas.  Well this transmission is what axons do, they send signals from one end of the cell to the other, where the signal cascades to many other cells.  Now the myelin sheath is like the plastic covering around the wire.  It makes sure that the electrical current (or signal) is contained to the wire and allows the current to travel quickly down the wire.  Without this covering, the signal could be slowed down or disappear completely.  When the antibodies attack the Schwann cells, the signals sent either to our brain or from our brain are slowed.  This explains the symptoms of Guillain-Barre, like muscle weakness or paralysis, loss of reflexes in the arms or legs, tingling, and clumsiness.

Like most victims of Guillain-Barre syndrome, Swartz did make a full recovery.  Although a complete recovery could take weeks to years.  Often people who have had this syndrome often still experience muscle fatigue even three years after onset.  Although most people do recover from this syndrome, there are only treatments for it and no cure.  Some treatment strategies include removing antibodies from the blood or blocking antibodies with high doses of immunoglobin.

1 comment:

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