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Unexplained Brain Disease That Causes Teeth Chattering And Hallucinations Baffles Doctors

by : Emily Brown on : 02 Apr 2021 14:06
DrOONeil (CC-BY-SA-3.0)/Shutterstock

Doctors in Canada are attempting to get to the bottom of a mysterious brain disease that causes teeth chattering, memory loss and hallucinations. 

Canadian public health officials have said at least 43 people in New Brunswick, Canada, have developed the suspected neurological disease, five of which have died, with no known cause.

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Symptoms of the illness are similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rare, fatal brain disease caused by malformed proteins known as prions, however patient screening has produced no confirmed cases of CJD.

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As politicians in the area demand answers and locals learned about the investigation following a leaked memo last week, a team of researchers are attempting to determine if the illness is a previously unknown neurological syndrome, or a series of unrelated but previously known ailments.

Michael Coulthart, head of Canada’s CJD surveillance network, told The Guardian: ‘We have not seen over the last 20-plus years a cluster of diagnosis-resistant neurological disease like this one.’

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Dr Alier Marrero, the neurologist leading New Brunswick’s investigation, said patients initially experienced unexplained pains, spasms and behavioural changes before going on to develop more concerning symptoms over the following 18 to 36 months, including cognitive decline, muscle wasting, drooling, teeth chattering and, in some cases, frightening hallucinations such as the feeling of insects crawling on their skin.

Speaking to CBC, Mayor Yvon Godin of Bertrand, New Brunswick, said residents are ‘very very worried about it’.

He commented: 

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Residents are anxious. They’re asking, ‘Is it moose meat? Is it deer? Is it contagious?’ We need to know as fast as possible what is causing this disease.

The majority of cases are linked to the Acadian peninsula, in the north-eastern part of the province, and researchers are attempting to determine if there is a common link between the cases by studying environmental causes including water sources, plants and insects.

It affects people of all ages and only a single suspected case of the illness was recorded in 2015, but the number rose in the following years to 11 cases in 2019 and 24 cases in 2020.

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Marrero said: ‘We don’t know what is causing it. At this time we only have more patients appearing to have this syndrome.’

Though reports of the unknown illness have sparked concern, experts have warned against jumping to conclusions as the wide range of symptoms in the cluster is said to be ‘atypical’ for most brain diseases.

Valerie Sim, a researcher of neurodegenerative diseases at the University of Alberta, stressed that there ‘just isn’t enough information yet’, and noted that certain cancers, dementia or misdiagnoses could explain the range of symptoms.

In order to determine whether a new case should be included in the ‘cluster’ of previously suspected cases, Marrero and his team consider the patient’s history as well as tests including brain imaging, metabolic and toxicology tests and spinal taps to rule out other possible illnesses.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: Health, Canada, Now

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The Guardian and 1 other
  1. The Guardian

    Mystery brain disorder baffles Canadian doctors

  2. The Independent

    Mysterious brain disease affects dozens of Canadians, causing teeth chattering and hallucinations