Things that want to eat your brain

This is the fourth of 16 student posts, guest-authored by Eric Wika.

Let's face it, it's a dangerous world to be a brain. The brain is so soft and squishy it cannot even support its own weight. That's right, even gravity itself is enough to take out an unprotected brain. Besides these passive threats, there are several factions out there that active try to damage your brain! Zombies are an ever present menace which wish to eat our brains. TV will rot our brains, drugs will fry our brains and bullies will offer to “beat your brains in”. It's no wonder mother nature had to come up with the enormous bone braincase on top of your shoulders, it really is a dangerous place to be a brain!

And now, there's even a new threat against our brain. Brain eating amoebas. Isn't mother nature so adorable sometimes?!? Scientist have discovered an amoeba in river water that normally sits quite happily in its own environment eating bacteria. However, when it's take out of its natural environment and shot up someone's nose, it starts to eat the food source that's readily available. That's right, lunch time for brain eaters.

The amoeba is Naegleria fowleri, and has been reported recently in Louisiana. The Department of Health and Hospitals in the region had this to say about it.

Now if you think you may be infested with these brain loving parasites, let's take a trip down to review what the natural history and symptoms of this tour of joy are. Remember standard disclaimers apply. If you go to the internet and use it as a replacement for real medical evaluation and treatment, then you are essentially leaving your medical health up to this guy, and come on, this guy can't even figure out how to ROW.

Luckily there's a FAQ for brain eating amoebas. The first thing to do is to check your exposure history. This bug doesn't take the midtown bus and arrive at the steps of your apartment. You have to come to it. It lives in lake water, ponds, untreated pools, well water and the like. If you (or more to the point your nose) hasn't been to any of these places, then you're in luck. If your nose doesn't go to these places, the bug can't have access to your juicy brain bits. If you use a neti pot   there are some extra precautions to take. (more on this later) If you do get this bug up your nose, that's where the confusion begins. It's been postulated that these bugs get confused by the chemicals your brain cells use to communicate with each other. The signal that brain cell 1 uses to say “Hey, let Frank know I smell a hotdog down here” gets to the amoeba and through some massive mess up in communication, that signal is misinterpreted as “hey, Naegleria, get your butt up here for some goodies!!!” Naegleria then does the logical thing and get's it's little amoeba butt through the olfactory nerve (the bit that smells stuff) and into your frontal lobe (the smart “decides what you'll have for lunch” bit) and begins the chow down process. Once you get it it takes about 2 to 15 days to show symptoms, and most people unfortunately die 3 to 7 days after symptoms appear. Symptoms are very similar to that of viral meningitis, including headache, fever, stiff neck, loss of appetite, vomiting, altered mental state, seizures and coma. Luckily these are symptoms that generally get you prompt attention from the local doctors at your hospital.

There have been a few cases of this disease so far. About 400 cases have been reported worldwide, 35 of which have been from the US since 2001. Thankfully, it is pretty rare. Unfortunately that can be a double edged sword as rare diseases tend to take longer to diagnose, if they get diagnosed at all. One of the most common ways to get this disease is through the use of a neti pot. A neti pot for those fortunate enough to not be in the know, is a tool used for pouring water directly into your nose. If you ever get to the point where your sinuses are so bad you start thinking to yourself “wow, having water poured directly into my nose would suck WAY less than this”, then getting a neti pot is for you. Other than medieval torture, a neti pot is a great device for flushing out the sinuses. Using one involves getting water, mixing it with some salt, and pouring it right on in there. Here is a lovely set of instructions coupled with an equally lovely picture of a woman in full nose irrigation mode.

The trick, however, is you have to use CLEAN water. If you're going to shove something up your nose, whether it's water or if you're in Total Recall trying to remove an alien probe from your brain, do yourself a favor and make sure it's clean.

Now you may be thinking “I'm fine, the only water I stick up my nose is pure, clean tap water. I don't use dirty well water or go swimming in icky lakes and streams. Unfortunately, in today's world, that just ain't good enough. See tap water isn't sterile. It's clean, it's safe to drink, but it isn't sterile. Drinking tap water with Naegleria in it won't make you sick, but sticking it up your nose will. You can avoid this easily one of two ways. 1) boil water (don't forget to cool it!) before using your neti pot, or 2) buy distilled water for use with your neti pot (it costs less that $1 per gallon at most grocery stores).

Remember, the only one who can protect your brain is you! Use your neti pot safely and don't get your brain eaten!

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And the Louisiana department of health consistently misspells amoeba....

I feel really sorry for that poor girl who had to be the model for the neti pot!

Working in a local hospital they, I work the non-medical side of things, had a kid transported in with neurological systems that had built up for over a week. They ran a bunch of tests and suspected meningitis and increased cranial pressure. When they put a bolt in the kids head what came out was reported to be liquified brain matter that resembled split-pea soup that smelled so bad that it drove several people from the room.

The kid was essentially brainless by the time he got to the hospital and there was little anyone could do. They kept him on a respirator for a few hours to allow the family to make their peace before pulling the plug.

The healthy and bright boy had been swimming in either a small pond or abandoned rock quarry. A few hours fun on a hot summer day and dead before two weeks had passed. Sad.

Thank you for helping spread the awareness to those who are unaware of this deadly risk! This amoeba is very common in lakes and rivers and other fresh water and of it goes up the nose it just takes days to destroy lives! this amoeba is 'reported' to have taken 5 lives in 2011 and 4 lives in 2010 (one being my own son Kyle). we wish we had know about this risk because he was worth protecting!! That's why we started and a foundation to make others aware. Keep spreading the awareness, with no cure prevention is key!

By Kyle's mom (not verified) on 19 Jun 2012 #permalink

The most common environment for Naegleria fowleri to enter the nasal chamber is fresh water swimming, not the Neti Pot.

The Neti Pot cases are mainly confined to Louisiana.

The real news story here is not how a professionally endorsed practise with over a two thousand year old history is the risk, its more that a developed country such as the US has Naegleria roaming free in its public water supplies. That is the big concern.

C'mon, fact check! He was removing a TRACKER from his nose in "Total Recall!"

So what do you do if you used tap water in the netti pot? Just hope for the best?