Doctors try to unravel brain disease identified in 40 patients in Canada

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Magnetic resonance imaging machine at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Credit: Keith Srakocic (AP)

Doctors in Canada are intrigued by a group of people who suffer from a brain disorder similar to dementia, but with no known diagnosis. In the last half decade, dozens of New Brunswick residents are believed to have developed the disease, which includes symptoms such as memory loss, behavioral changes and hallucinations. It is not yet known whether these cases are really related or what could be the cause.

A CBC News reported this month that health officials in New Brunswick sent a memo in early March to doctors in the area alerting them to the cases. According to the document, the probable first case of this mysterious condition was reported in 2015. So far, 43 suspected cases have been identified, including six in 2021, in all age groups. Five people have died so far.

In addition to memory and mental problems, symptoms include loss of muscle mass, pain and spasms. Superficially, the disease appears to resemble a prion disease – neurological disorders caused by harmful proteins that accumulate in the brain and slowly destroy it. But medical examinations have found no evidence of prions in these patients so far.

Prion diseases are also universally fatal, usually within months to a year after the onset of the first symptoms, but those from this condition have developed over 18 to 36 months in the patients found so far, while five people with the disease have died.

The only clear connections between these patients are their shared symptoms without an easily explainable origin, as well as their proximity, with cases being found in northeastern and southeastern New Brunswick. The geographical connection may suggest a unique environmental cause for these areas, such as exposure to a toxin. But it is still possible that some or all of these cases are not really related.

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For now, authorities and scientists are struggling to discover the potential origins of this condition and whether anything can be done to contain its spread, if it is transmissible.

“It is possible that ongoing investigations will give us the cause in a week, or it is possible that they will give us the cause in a year,” said Brian Cashman, a professor at the University of British Columbia medical school and one of the researchers involved in the study. , a CBC News recently. “There is no exact deadline for when we will have an answer. This issue should be the focus of scientific attention, and as soon as possible. ”

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