What is Guillain-Barre Syndrome?

Guillain-Barre syndrome also known as Landry's paralysis, is a rare but serious autoimmune deficiency. It was first referenced in 1859 by a French doctor called Jean Landry. He described a cluster of symptoms which included numbness, weakness and progressive paralysis of the limbs. The symptoms seemed to appear mysteriously and disappear much the same way. Typically, these symptoms affected the extremities (lower limbs) first, and gradually extended to all muscles leaving the patient immobilized. At that time, very little was known about the peripheral nervous system, but the symptoms seemed similar to those contracted after a dose of diphtheria.

It wasn't until 1916, when three other french physicians, Georges Guillain, Jean Alexandre Barre, and Andre Strohl diagnosed two soldiers with the same symptoms and that's how Guillain-Barre Syndrome got it's name. Guillain and Barre were fellow colleagues attending the Saltpêtriére in Paris. Both had chosen neurology as their specialist subject. During the First World War, they both offered their services as army doctors. They became very interested in two particular cases of soldiers who presented with partial paralysis. Together with a third French physician, Andre Strohl they published their first classic paper on Guillain-Barre Syndrome.

Guillain-Barre is a condition that occurs when the body's immune system attacks certain areas of the peripheral nervous system. In some cases the disorder is life threatening because it can cause breathing difficulties which in turn can effect blood pressure and cause irregular heart rates. When this happens, a patient may be put on a ventilator. Guillain-Barre can strike anyone and does not discriminate between sex or age. The syndrome is uncommon enough though; about one person in 100,000 will suffer. It's usually precipitated by some kind of viral or bacterial infection and it's not contagious. The actual cause of Guillain-Barre is still under research.

Scientists working on this disorder believe Guillain-Barre changes the nature of cells in the nervous system so that the immune system is tricked into thinking it's under attack. The immune system views them as foreign cells. There's also speculation regarding the possibility that the virus makes the immune system mistrust itself. This permits some of the immune cells like lymphocytes or macrophages, to attack the myelin sheath and destroy it. Much deeper investigation and neurological science is needed to fully understand what Guillain-Barre Syndrome really is and more importantly, what causes it.

Roughly nine out of ten people with Guillain-Barré survive with an approximate ninety per cent reporting a successful recovery. Only a small percentage will be left with some form of permanent handicap. It's generally thought that if the symptoms are reported as soon as possible, the better the outcome for the future. Having said that, it can take anything up to two years to fully recover from this illness.