How Infections Can Cause Neuropsychiatric Symptoms

As a parent, it is truly heartbreaking to see your child suffer from unexplained neurological symptoms such as sudden changes in behavior, mood swings, and movement disorders. Sadly, common childhood infections can be one of the underlying triggers for such symptoms. In some cases, microbes can cause the immune system to produce antibodies that mistakenly attack healthy cells in the brain, leading to inflammation and dysfunction.

 In this article, we will discuss the role of antibodies and brain inflammation in causing such symptoms and what steps you can take as a parent to help your child.

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Mental Illness After Infections

There is no shortage of factors that influence mental health—genetics, brain changes, prenatal effects, and even vitamin & mineral imbalances all play a role. Now, mental health may also be facing a new complication, according to mounting evidence showing neurological symptoms that appear after certain kinds of infections (1).

Common infections can trigger an abnormal immune response, where antibodies that the immune system produces to neutralize a harmful pathogen (like a bacteria or virus), then mistakenly flags healthy brain cells for destruction.

This autoimmune response causes inflammation in the brain, known as neuroinflammation, and can trigger a myriad of mental health symptoms and troubling psychiatric disorders.

Related: Is Epstein-Barr Reactivation the Cause of Chronic Fatigue?

Antibodies & Brain Inflammation

A growing variety of both bacterial and viral infections play a role in triggering antibodies that mistake healthy cells in the brain for infection-carrying agents.

Even common illnesses, like streptococcal infections and bronchitis, are linked to a higher risk of many mental illnesses in children and adolescents (2). The same study also found an increased risk of developing mental health symptoms related to how many infections a child had, and their severity.

As the immune system rallies to fight an infection, sometimes the response is like a complex, double-edged sword.


In children, strep throat infections can trigger an autoimmune response which leads to antibodies attacking brain cells in a specific region of the brain, known as the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia affects thoughts, feelings, movement, and other behaviors. This autoimmune response is known as PANS or PANDAS (3)

PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) is a subset of PANS (Pediatric Acute-Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome) and both can cause the sudden, acute onset of symptoms, such as obsessions, compulsions, tics, ADHD-like behavior, mood swings, seizures, anxiety and depression.

Anti-basal ganglia antibodies (ABGA) have also been identified in patients with Sydenham's chorea, a condition characterized by rapid, uncontrolled movements, as well as in patients with Tourette's Syndrome (4).

Read more: Early Detection Crucial in the Fight Against PANS/PANDAS

Antibodies in the Crosshairs

In the realm of autoimmune issues impacting the brain and central nervous system, antibodies like anti-NMDA receptor antibodies and anti-dopamine D2 receptor antibodies have been identified as potential culprits (4).

Infections Can Pass Through the Blood-Brain Barrier

Until as recently as 10 years ago, the blood-brain barrier was thought to keep the brain separate from the immune system that circulated in the rest of the body.

The brain was “immune privileged,” or so we thought. But now we know infections, stress, and inflammation can compromise the blood-brain barrier, allowing auto-antibodies access to the brain (5). This breach of this protective barrier is a crucial factor in the development of autoimmune disorders triggered by infections.

The psychiatric symptoms that occur when the blood-brain barrier is breached often manifest as changes in movements and abnormalities of behavior, emotion, and cognition.

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Molecular Mimicry

The phenomenon to consider when discussing autoimmune issues of not only the brain, but also the rest of the body, is molecular mimicry

Molecular mimicry occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy tissues because of similarities between a particular molecule on an infectious agent (like a bacteria or virus) and the molecules in our own body tissues.

Molecular mimicry is believed to play a large role in other autoimmune diseases too.

For example, rheumatic fever can also result after an untreated strep infection. Normally, the immune system produces antibodies to destroy strep bacteria, but in some people, this process goes wrong and antibodies also attack healthy heart tissue.

Rheumatoid arthritis is another example of molecular mimicry resulting in autoimmune disease, which occurs when antibodies attack the joints. Molecular mimicry has also been seen with chronic Lyme disease (6).

Molecular Mimicry, Multiple Sclerosis, and the Central Nervous System

Molecular mimicry also provides an explanation for the development of multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is sometimes thought to be triggered by the immune system’s response to Epstein-Barr virus (EBV), also known as mono

Immune cells mistakenly attack components of myelin, thinking they’re targeting the virus molecules that have similar building blocks (7). Myelin forms the protective coating around nerve cells, and helps electrical impulses jump from one nerve to the next. When it’s damaged, nerve cells can’t communicate with each other as well, resulting in numbness, muscle weakness, and severe fatigue.

A study of 801 MS cases from more than 10 million people over 20 years found that EBV infection was present in all but one case at the time of MS onset (8). 

Learn more about integrative medicine treatments for autoimmune disease.

Treatment for Infections Causing Neuroinflammation

Infections that cause neurological symptoms were once thought to be an extremely rare occurrence, but recent evidence suggests symptoms are more common than initially thought.

Proper diagnosis of these infections is crucial and can involve a combination of laboratory tests, clinical observation, and history taking.

Treatment for infections causing neuroinflammation typically involves antibiotics to eradicate the underlying infection, along with immunosuppressant medication to decrease inflammation and modulate the immune response. When the underlying root cause is identified and treated, these symptoms typically resolve or are greatly reduced

The Connection Between Infections & Mental Health

Infections can not only trigger physical symptoms, but mental health symptoms as well. The impact of infections on the immune system and the blood-brain barrier can lead to a cascade of events that result in neuropsychiatric disorders. Understanding this connection is crucial for proper diagnosis and treatment of these once thought rare conditions. Further research is needed to fully understand the complex mechanisms at play, but it is clear that infections should not be overlooked as potential triggers for mental health issues.

If you or a loved one experience sudden changes in behavior, mood, or movement after an infection, a deeper look into the underlying causes is key to long-term healing.


Holistic Medicine, mental health

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