In a small Canadian province of New Brunswick, 48 people have so far presented with a
baffling mix of serious symptoms, ranging from impaired motor function to insomnia,
hallucinations and memory loss. After a battery of tests and diagnostics performed on these patients failed to yield a conclusive diagnosis, doctors and medical experts from Canada are concerned that they could have on their hands a hitherto unknown brain disease.
The news of a team of experts digging deeper to ascertain the cause and possible treatment for this condition – which for now has been given the working name New Brunswick Cluster of Neurological Syndrome of Unknown Cause – created ripples after a memo from the province’s public health agency asking physicians to look out for symptoms resembling the rare and fatal Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease emerged in the public sphere.
Predictably, both residents and politicians are demanding answers but experts say that with such few known cases, there are more questions at this point.
THE TRAJECTORY OF THE DISEASE SO FAR
The first reported case of this mysterious brain disease dates back to 2015, when Dr Alier
Marrero, a neurologist in New Brunswick, treated a patient who was dealing with a baffling
mix of symptoms, including muscle pains, anxiety, depression, nightmarish hallucinations
and rapidly progressive dementia.
Over the next three years, he saw eight more such cases. In the fourth year, the number
rose to 20, and then, progressed to 38, and then 48.
Confused by these bizarre symptoms, Dr Marrero orders a battery of tests, ranging from
MRI scans to blood tests and electroencephalograms. The test results indicated
abnormalities such as neurological dysfunction and brain atrophy but didn’t couldn’t be tied together to form a clear diagnosis.
The initial suspicion was that these patients could be afflicted with Creutzfeldt-Jakob
disease, a highly rare brain disorder affecting 1 in a million people and resulting in rapidly
progressive neurodegeneration believed to be caused by brain-damaging novel infectious
agents called prions. However, the patients tested negative for all known forms of CJD too. After pouring over medical texts and consulting with neurology experts across the world, he concluded that this disease wasn’t something the world has seen before. Dr Marrero christened this mysterious brain condition the Neurological Syndrome of Unknown Etiology in New Brunswick.
He also raised an alarm about the developments in the quaint Canadian province, notifying
provincial and federal health authorities as well as experts around the world.
A BROAD SPECTRUM OF PATIENTS
The most pressing concern right now is understanding the possible potential root cause for this brain condition.
Could it be environmental?
Is it genetic?
Are lifestyle choices to blame?
Is it something people in the area are consuming, maybe fish or deer meat? Or something else altogether.
Finding commonalities that can help medical experts narrow down the potential cause by way of corelation or elimination is proving challenging as the age group of patients ranges from 18 to 84 years. The only common factor seen so far is that they’re primarily from two areas of the New Brunswick province: the Acadian Peninsula and Moncton.
The youngest known victim is 20-year-old Gabrielle Cormier, who began experiencing
symptoms two years ago and was debilitated to an extent that she had to drop out of
college. She now lives at home and walks with a cane. When two years of diagnostics and
medical consults failed to yield any insight, she was one of the first people to be added to a cluster of patients suffering from this unidentified syndrome.
On the other end of the spectrum are people like Roger Ellis, in his 60s, and an otherwise
healthy 75-year-old woman, both of whom suffered sudden inexplicable weight loss, apart
from the loss of motor function, hallucinations, repetitive speech, aggression.
RESEARCH IS UNDERWAY
This April, six years after this unidentified brain disease first presented itself, health
authorities in the Canadian capital of Ottawa and New Brunswick have put together a team
of neurologists, pathologists, epidemiologists, veterinarians and environmentalists to dive
deeper into this puzzling medical mystery.
The team is analysing the brain autopsies of the six people who have so far succumbed to this condition in addition to reviewing evidence. Medical investigators have been able to list a handful of potential causes for the condition so far. According to University of British Columbia neurologist Dr Neil Cashman, who called the disease a ‘medical whodunit seen only a couple of times in a century’, one line of thought is that the underlying trigger could be a toxin known as beta-methylamino-L-alanine or BMAA, known to be produced by blue-green algae and closely linked to neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
Another potential cause could be chronic exposure to Domoic acid, a neurotoxin rampant in shellfish found off the coast of New Brunswick. The research team hasn’t ruled out the
possibility of this disease being caused by a new prion such as a virus, fungus and bacteria. Even though the incidence of this ‘never seen before’ brain condition seems localized for now, having more answers than questions could be in everyone’s interest at a time when the collective health of the human race is on tenterhooks amid an unabating pandemic.