Showing posts with label Plasmapheresis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Plasmapheresis. Show all posts

Saturday 21 June 2014

PANDAS, PANS, Penguins and Autism

Anyone with a serious interest in autism should also be aware of PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) and PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome).  These are two syndromes which have acute onset of symptoms very similar to some of those found in autism.  It is claimed to affect 1 in every 200 children in the US.

The good news is that a very thorough and dedicated doctor called Susan Swedo has worked logically through from starting to identify the syndrome, all the way through to treating it.  Good job Susan.

Though she insists that PANDAS and PANS are distinct from autism, one can only wonder how many other distinct, but yet to be identified, syndromes exist that also present with autism-like symptoms.

Thanks to the efforts of Dr Swedo and the US NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), these two conditions have been remarkably well investigated, in a very short period of time.  It shows what medical science can achieve when the right people are in charge.  It is odd that such effective clinical attention has not been focused on autism itself.

Here is a very recent presentation given by Dr Swedo, which really covers all the important aspects of both PANS and PANDAS.  For those with a serious interest, have a look though this post and then watch the presentation, to get the most from it.

Dr Susan Swedo (click for IPad users)

Penguins and PANDAS

One of the reasons I was so impressed by how PANDAS has been addressed, as opposed to the much more common autism, is the before and after data.  For example, many people talk about regressive autism, but nobody quantifies from what, to what.  Some children went from a spoken vocabulary of 10 words to 2 words, while others went from 500 words to zero; there is a profound (and relevant) difference.

In the case of PANS and PANDAS we have the before and after artwork from the affected kids. As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words.

I have no great panda pictures, but Monty aged 10 with ASD, brought back his artwork from school last week and pride of place goes to his picture of two penguins.  We were all more than a little taken aback to see it.  Did he really draw this? Unassisted?  It looks much more like the work of his big brother.  Even his assistant was surprised and confirmed that this was the result of his work in the art room for a double lesson.  I never expected to be displaying Monty’s artwork to the world.

Later in this post you will see the before and after PANDAS artwork.


When I first came across a condition known as PANDAS or PANS, I did not take that much notice; with such a name I assumed it was nonsense.   Researchers should give a serious syndrome a serious name/acronym.

I imagine that with the ever widening of the diagnosis of autism, some people with PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) /PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome) have been misdiagnosed as autistic and vice versa.

When you look at the symptoms and apparent cause of PANDAS/PANS you may wonder how many other similar conditions exist within the myriad of conditions leading to autism.

The shocking regression in cognitive function (illustrated by children’s drawings further down the page) produced by this condition and the fact that it can be reversed, should really be carefully evaluated in comparison to regressive autism.

It would be appear that all of this is caused by an immune system gone “haywire”.  I wonder how many other immune dysfunctions leading to regression and odd behaviours will be identified in future decades.

The treatment for all these current, and future, conditions are likely to revolve around immunomodulatory therapy, ranging from very cheap steroids (prednisone) to the very expensive, like IVIG (Intravenous immunoglobulin)

If you have a case of regressive autism and the expert says it does not fit the definition of PANDAS/PANS, he might think the case is closed.  Perhaps it should not be.

I suggest that immune over-activation is involved in both groups of autism:-

Early onset autism
In these cases the immune activation is secondary; when it occurs the existing autism just gets much worse.  In some cases these flare-ups are evidently caused by food allergies/intolerance or pollen allergies.

Regressive Autism
I think that in mild cases, some autism may be solely an over-activation of the immune system, without any of the channelopathies and other dysfunctions common in classic autism.  I would put PANS/PANDAS is this category.  I suggest that many other cases of regressive autism could be traced back to allergies and food intolerance, which triggered an immune over-response.

It does seem that many regressions followed a viral infection, and of course, many people believe their regression was triggered by vaccines.  I expect in most cases the vaccine is just a scapegoat, but I very much doubt it is in every case.   
I do not expect there will be any research in this area, because the results would inevitably be misinterpreted by the public.  What a pity.

If we better understood what events could radically disrupt brain function, we might be able to better understand how to treat the resulting neuropsychiatric phenomena, known as regressive autism, PANDAS, PANS and other, yet to be invented, acronyms.

A serious condition with some serious followers

Many people’s knowledge of autism seems to come from sound bites from scientific luminaries like Oprah, Jenny McCarthy and even Donald Trump.  Somewhat remarkably, the PANS doctors are actually a very serious bunch, under the umbrella of the International OCD Foundation (and the NIMH).  This foundation is a serious organisation with a scientific advisory board loaded with people from top US Medical Schools.

Not only have they concisely explained the symptoms, but they have also found therapies; albeit, they do not really know why they work.

The US National Institute of Mental Health has great information.

There is also a very serious parent run organisation called PANDAS Network.


In the early 1990s, 50 years after Kanner noticed autism, researchers in the US noticed what they thought was an odd acute-onset type of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  At first it was thought that only streptococcal infections and Scarlet fever triggered this abrupt regression in the child’s behaviour and cognitive performance.  The first name they came up with was PANDAS, (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections); when reports came in that many other infections caused acute regression the name got changed to PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome). 

Symptoms of PANS

It is pretty clear to me that some people diagnosed with regressive autism actually have PANS.  I have from two sources a list of symptoms:-

International OCD Foundation
  • Acute sudden onset of OCD
  • Challenges with eating, and at the extreme end, anorexia
  • Sensory issues such as sensitivity to clothes, sound, and light
  • Handwriting noticeably deteriorates
  • Urinary frequency or bedwetting
  • Small motor skills deteriorate - a craft project from yesterday is now impossible to complete (see images below)
  • Tics
  • Inattentive, distractible, unable to focus and has difficulties with memory
  • Overnight onset of anxiety or panic attacks over things that were no big deal a few days ago, such as thunderstorms or bugs
  • Suddenly unable to separate from their caregiver, or to sleep alone
  • Screaming for hours on end
  • Fear of germs and other more traditional-looking OCD symptoms

US National Institute of Mental Health
  • Severe separation anxiety (e.g., child can't leave parent's side or needs to sleep on floor next to parent's bed, etc.)
  • Generalized anxiety. which may progress to episodes of panic and a "terror-stricken look"
  • Motoric hyperactivity, abnormal movements, and a sense of restlessness
  • Sensory abnormalities, including hyper-sensitivity to light or sounds, distortions of visual perceptions, and occasionally, visual or auditory hallucinations
  • Concentration difficulties, and loss of academic abilities, particularly in math and visual-spatial areas
  • Increased urinary frequency and a new onset of bed-wetting
  • Irritability (sometimes with aggression) and emotional liability. Abrupt onset of depression can also occur, with thoughts about suicide.
  • Developmental regression, including temper tantrums, "baby talk" and handwriting deterioration (also related to motor symptoms)

In case you want to see what they mean by regression, look at these pictures drawn by a child with PANDAS before and after treatment.  Panel A is before and Panel B is after.   Source International OCD Foundation


Compared to Autism, a very refreshing approach is taken to treating PANS.

The treatments include:-
·        Treatment with antibiotics to eradicate the infection, if it is still present.
·        Immune-based therapies such as

o   corticosteroids (such as prednisone).

The good news about the immune therapies is that the treatment gains were maintained long-term, which is exactly what you would want to see. 
Therapeutic plasma exchange and intravenous immunoglobulin for obsessive-compulsive disorder and tic disorders in childhood

Implications for Autism

In spite of what your doctor might tell you, if your child has regressive autism, you would be well advised to check and re-check that he/she does not have PANS or a (yet to be identified) variant thereof. 

The immune-based therapies that ultimately are proved to be successful in PANS are highly likely to be helpful in treating the kind of autism in which the immune system remains in a state of over-activation.  Also the immune-therapies being trialled for autism, if successful, might very likely be helpful alternative therapies for PANS; the therapy I have in mind is TSO.

Classic early-onset autism, as researched in post-mortem studies at the Courchesne lab and elsewhere, is associated with physical brain abnormalities, that should be irreversible.  It would seem that PANS is something entirely different and should be treatable and potentially fully recoverable.

For those of you unaware of Courchesne, here is a short video; he is quoted by many of the leading autism researchers, so I hope he has got things right.

Where does regressive autism fit in?  I really doubt that all those people with regressive autism have the physical brain abnormalities of classic autism.  Research has shown that regressive autism has even higher bio-markers of neuroinflammation than classic autism.  Perhaps regressive autism is neuroinflammation, without physical brain abnormalities?

Just as PANS is a mini-spectrum of conditions, pathologically distinct from early onset autism, I suspect that regressive autism is equally pathologically distinct from early onset autism.

Why does it matter?  Well if you want to treat something, it helps to know what you are dealing with.

PANS looks like it has some clever people working on it.  Regressive autism, which may indeed be the most prevalent type, is in need of some similarly clever people.


If regressive autism is your area of interest, I would suggest you look very carefully at PANS/PANDAS and the therapies that have been shown to be effective.

If you have PANS/PANDAS, taking a look at the experimental immunomodulatory therapy used in autism might be very worthwhile, for example the TSO therapy from Coronado Bioscience.

We know that PANS/PANDAS is caused by an ongoing inappropriate immune response, but we do not know how this is mediated into the odd behaviours.  One possible mechanism would be via a weakening of the blood brain barrier (BBB).  

It has been shown that the similar mechanism controls the BBB and the gut immune barrier.   Clever research into Celiac Disease has resulted in the discovery of Zonulin, which is now known to be the only physiological modulator of both these barriers.  Using a type of laboratory test called ELISA, it is now possible to measure Zonulin levels.  If people diagnosed with PANS/PANDAS were shown to have low Zonulin levels, we could assume that the BBB was compromised; this would certainly advance understanding of the condition. It would of course point the way to new therapies.