Brain Tapeworms (Neurocysticercosis)

By:    Published: June 12, 2012

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Usually, the thought of giant worms eating a person’s brain seems to be the plot of a B-list horror movie that is more fiction than fact. However, there is such a disease in the world that involves a parasite creating holes in an affected individual’s brain. Before you start freaking out, read on to find out more about brain tapeworms, medically known as neurocysticercosis.

What Is It?

Neurocysticercosis is perhaps the most common medical condition that affects the central nervous system (the brain and the spine) due to a parasite. This illness happens when the eggs of the parasite Taenia solium, commonly known as tapeworm, are ingested from contaminated food.

While adult tapeworms are commonly associated with living in the human intestines, its larvae can travel via human bloodstream to the spinal cord and brain. Once there, the larvae attach themselves and take root. On MRIs, these brain tapeworms look like white, cystic blobs that resemble tumors. As those cysts grow, they can push against the brain and cause many neurological-related problems. After the larvae cyst dies, it can calcify and continue to inflame the surrounding tissues.

Cause

Basically, the cause of brain tapeworms is the parasite T. solium. While neurocysticercosis is typically a problem of developing countries, such as Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia, it is increasing in industrialized countries; recently, episodes of this medical condition have been found in Canada.

This tapeworm affects both humans and pigs; in the former, it can take host in the brain, spinal cord, bloodstream, or intestines (adult form). In pigs, the parasite usually attaches to the animal’s blood vessels and muscles. Hence, T. solium is most commonly transmitted via undercooked pork. It can also be transmitted via fecal contaminated water, as intestinal tapeworms can lay up to 50,000 eggs that are excreted with human feces. Fortunately, by practicing safe water drinking techniques and cooking pork thoroughly, the ingestion of such parasitic eggs can be avoided.

Signs And Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of neurocysticercosis are of a neurological nature, and can include:

  • Chronic headaches
  • Vomiting
  • Seizures (if repeatedly, can become epilepsy)
  • Blindness
  • Problems with the eyes or eyesight
  • Partial or complete loss of motor skills
  • Dementia
  • Hernia of the brain
  • Convulsion
  • Learning difficulties and/or confusion
  • Excessive accumulation of the cerebral spinal fluid (hydrocephalus)
  • Inflammation of the central nervous system (meningitis)
  • Pressure in the head
  • Death

It is estimated that neurocysticercosis is the leading reason for epilepsy in developing countries (about 5 million related cases each year), with roughly 2,000 cases in the United States. Hence, if you suspect you suffer from this parasite, be sure to contact your physician immediately to seek treatment.

Diagnosis And Treatment

The typical method of diagnosing brain tapeworms is through different forms of brain scans, and detecting the presence of tapeworm antibodies in the affected individual via blood tests. In the scans, lumpy cysts can easily be detected. However, the parasitic eggs can incubate undetected in the human body for up to 2 years, so an affected individual may not even know he or she has the parasite until symptoms emerge. If a larvae cyst develops but does not cause significant signs or symptoms, it may also go undetected for most of its life.

The only known treatment so far for neurocysticercosis is the medication – praziquantel, which can effectively kill T. solium in all stages of life. However, it also includes a paradoxical side effect of brain swelling, which can cause discomfort similar to neurocysticercosis itself. Other treatment methods, such as vaccinating pigs beforehand, are currently in development.

Other methods that treat the signs and symptoms of neurocysticercosis can also be implemented, such as surgical removal of cysts, or implanting shunts in the cranium to alleviate cerebral pressure. Be sure to consult a doctor on the most proper treatment and alleviation method, as the stage of the disease can determine the method taken.

Prevention

Since nobody wants any parasites eating away at their brains, prevention is the best bet to have a worm-free brain. Here are some tips for preventing neurocysticercosis:

  • Always cook pork thoroughly and well-done, especially if you are in a developing country.
  • Always wash hands at every opportunity, especially before eating or drinking.
  • When visiting developing countries, eat pork only from established restaurants and locations (for example, stay away from that taco truck, or order something other than carnitas!)
  • Do not drink water from unidentified sources at the risk of contamination.
  • Research the country you are planning to travel to in advance for the risk of the T. solium organism, and take precautions when traveling.

Now you have the information to protect yourself from brain eating worms, be sure to use them as necessary!

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