Psychiatric autoimmune conditions in children and adolescents: Is catatonia a severity marker?

Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry. 2021 Jan 10;104:110028. doi: 10.1016/j.pnpbp.2020.110028. Epub 2020 Jul 1.


Objectives: Patients with autoimmune encephalitis (AE) are likely to exhibit an acute onset of severe psychiatric features, including psychosis and/or catatonia. Based on the high prevalence of catatonia in AE and our clinical experience, we hypothesized that catatonia might be a marker of severity requiring more aggressive treatment approaches.

Methods: To reach a sufficient number of cases with brain-autoimmune conditions, we pooled two samples (N = 58): the first from the French National Network of Rare Psychiatric diseases and the second from the largest Italian neuro-pediatrics center for encephalopathies. Autoimmune conditions were diagnosed using a multidisciplinary approach and numerous paraclinical investigations. We retrospectively compared patients with and without catatonia for psychiatric and non-psychiatric clinical features, biological and imaging assessments, type of immunotherapy used and outcomes.

Results: The sample included 25 patients (43%) with catatonia and 33 (57%) without catatonia. Forty-two patients (72.4%) had a definite AE (including 27 anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis) and 16 (27.6%) suspected autoimmune encephalitis. Patients with catatonia showed significantly more psychotic features [18 (72%) vs 9 (27.3%), p < 0.001)] and more movement disorders [25 (100%) vs 20 (60.6%), p < 0.001] than patients without catatonia. First line (corticoids, immunoglobulin and plasma exchanges) and second line (e.g., rituximab) therapies were more effective in patients with catatonia, with 24 (96%) vs 22 (66.7%) (p = 0.006) and 17 (68%) vs 9 (27.3%) (p = 0.002), respectively. However, those with catatonia received more combinations of first and second line treatments and had more relapses during outcomes.

Conclusion: Despite its exploratory design, the study supports the idea that autoimmune catatonia may be a marker of severity and morbidity in terms of initial presentation and relapses, requiring the need for early and aggressive treatment.

Keywords: Autoimmune condition; Autoimmune encephalitis; Catatonia; Immunosuppressive treatment.