Brain on Fire

  • by Susannah Cahalan
  • Narrated by Heather Henderson
  • 7 hrs and 48 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

In 2009, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room strapped to a bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records - from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory - reported psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four-year-old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.
Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. Weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia. Over one million dollars worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, until the celebrated neurologist, Dr. Souhel Najjar, joined her team. With the use of a simple - yet ingenious - test, he was able to make a lifesaving diagnosis - revealing a newly discovered autoimmune disorder in which the body attacks the brain.
With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer.

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What the Critics Say

"Engrossing.... Unquestionably, an important book on both a human and a medical level. Cahalan’s elegantly-written memoir of her dramatic descent into madness opens up discussion of the cutting-edge neuroscience behind a disease that may affect thousands of people around the world, and it offers powerful insight into the subjective workings of our minds." (Mehmet Oz, MD, Professor and Vice Chair, Department of Surgery, New York Presbyterian-Columbia Medical Center)
"Brain on Fire reads like a scientific thriller, but with a profound and moving philosophy at its heart." (David B. Agus, M.D., Professor of Medicine and Engineering, University of Southern California, and author of The End of Illness)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Brain Fever

I'd heard of Susannah Cahalan's "Brain on Fire" (2011), but I'd also heard Cahalan's a New York Post reporter. "A tabloid reporter?" I thought. "A writer from the rag famous for headlines like 'Headless Body found in Topless Bar' (April 15, 1983) and 'Weiner's Rise and Fall' (June 17, 2011)?" Clever headlines, sure - but aren't all tabloid writers as nutty as their ledes? "Maybe the job did her in," I thought, mentally dismissing the book.

My newspaper snobbery almost made me miss a very well written, insightful book based on sound, peer reviewed and published scientific research. In her mid-20's, working a dream job in New York City with a new boyfriend, Cahalan developed Anti-NMDA- (N-methyl D-aspartate) receptor autoimmune encephalitis, At the time - and probably still - people who develop signs and symptoms of that disease are diagnosed with psychosis of unknown origin, or schizo-affective disorder. The only really unexplainable symptom is seizures - others, such as abnormally high blood pressure, can be misdiagnosed as an concurrent, but unrelated problem.

Cahalan was lucky - she has a well educated family, and her bitterly divorced parents set aside their animosity to aggressively advocate and care for her. In fact, Cahalan's parents' new spouses were admirably supportive, despite Cahalan's paranoia - which had her saying particularly hurtful things to one and all. Even with parents and a boyfriend convinced Cahalan had more than "just a mental illness", pinpointing the cause was long and arduous - and almost didn't happen in time to prevent irreversible physical and mental problems. The treatment was an arduous course of steroids and intravenous immunoglobulins and plasmapheresis. Cahalan's care ended up costing her insurer over $1 mil, although if she had been properly diagnosed to begin with, the bill would have been 25% to 50% less.

Cahalan did something that was incredibly brave: she carefully researched and wrote about a situation that not only almost killed her, but also had her acting in ways that she later found were incredibly embarrassing. The most courageous admissions were about the hallucinations she knows she had - but are such vivid memories, she still half believes they were true.

Audible, I blame you for making me a newspaper snob in the first place. (That happens when the monthly subscription includes a 48 to 52 minute every weekday New York Times Audible Digest; your drive is about an hour; and the NY Times writing's usually pretty good.) Audible, I also thank you for knocking me off my literary high horse to find a writer worth the listen. I'm not going to start reading the New York Post, but I will look for other medical/scientific books by Cahalan. And, yeah, maybe I'll actually read a Post article along with an especially "punny" headline.

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- Cynthia "Always moving. Always listening. Always learning. "After all this time?" "Always.""

For those interested in neurology & psychology

This is a well-written and interesting memoir by a young woman who suffered through a period of time in which she experienced a form of "madness." Since she doesn't give away the particular disease in the title, I won't give a spoiler here; I have some background in the relevant fields and did not expect the answer. Her look back at this time in her life is thoughtful, and I found her ability to explain her medical condition and its details to be friendly to a general reader but not condescending. In general, the prose reads easily and well. I suspect that this book will be (has been) a very useful vehicle for spreading information about her illness, and will do considerable good. Glad to learn that she has recovered well and wish her the best. The narrator did a fine job of capturing the author's various moods and did some interpretation of the family members' voices as well.
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- Brian Quaranta

Book Details

  • Release Date: 11-13-2012
  • Publisher: HighBridge, a division of Recorded Books