In the picturesque Canadian province of New Brunswick, 48 people suffer from a bewildering combination of debilitating neurological symptoms including insomnia, impaired motor function, and hallucinations.
For six years, when the first case emerged, specialists have been unsuccessfully seeking a solution to the medical enigma.
The various conspiracy theories have emerged since the first case was reported like blaming cell towers, hydraulic fracturing for the extraction of gas and oil from the subsoil, and, more recently, vaccines against COVID-19.
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“People are alarmed. They are asking, ‘Is it environmental? Is it genetic? Is it fish or deer meat? Is it something else?’ Everyone wants answers,” quoted by New York Times saying said Yvon Godin, the mayor of Bertrand, a village in the Acadian Peninsula in northeastern New Brunswick where residents have been afflicted.
Neil Cashman, a neurologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, one of the specialists involved in researching the disease, says it is a medical conundrum of the kind you see only a couple of times every century.
“From the standpoint of a mystery, there is usually something horrible like a murder — in this case it is rapidly progressive dementia, and psychiatric manifestations, losing everything at once that is controlled by the brain and the spinal cord. It is terrifying,” the doctor shared.
Other doctors, however, doubt that it is a new condition. This is the case of Michael D. Geschwind, a professor at the University of California in San Francisco and one of the world’s leading experts on rare neurological flare-ups.
The expert has not studied the New Brunswick case, but cautions that what may seem like a new disease sometimes turns out to be a known disease that has not been diagnosed.
According to Geschwind, those affected could simply be suffering from a variety of disparate neurodegenerative diseases, which are being linked to each other even though they are not related.
The rise of the mysterious disease
The disease was first seen in 2015 in New Brunswick when a patient came to neurologist Alier Marrero with a strange combination of symptoms: anxiety, depression, rapidly progressing dementia, muscle aches, and terrifying visual disturbances.
Three years later, there were already eight similar cases. The following year, the total was 20 patients. To date, a total of 48 people suffer from symptoms of the disease that remain unidentified. The individuals are between 18 and 84 years old and, for the most part, live in two areas of the Canadian province: Moncton and the Acadian Peninsula.
Blood tests, lumbar punctures, MRI scans, and EEGs revealed abnormalities such as brain atrophy and neurological dysfunction. Marrero, however, did not find a clear relationship between the results that would allow the doctor to give an accurate diagnosis.
Initially, the neurologist suspected that it was Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), a rapidly progressive neurodegenerative condition that is believed to be caused by prions, proteins that are considered infectious agents and that damage the brain.
The patients, however, tested negative for known forms of CJD.
“It was not something we have seen before,” concluded the neurologist.
Without a diagnosis, the doctor named the devastating disease a neurological syndrome of unknown etiology in New Brunswick. The specialist also sounded the alarm, notifying colleagues and local and national health authorities.
Possible causes of symptoms
Only last April, six years after the first cases emerged, did health authorities in New Brunswick and Ottawa, the Canadian capital, assemble a team to investigate the case.
The brain autopsies carried out on the six fatal victims are being analyzed in a federal laboratory in the capital, while a team of neurologists and pathologists review the existing evidence.
So far, the results have been negative for known forms of prion disease. Medical researchers have narrowed the list of possible causes to about four or five, the outlet detailed.
According to Cashman, the neurologist at the University of British Columbia, one line of research hypothesizes that the disease could be caused by a toxin known as beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), which is produced by blue-green algae, and that has been linked to diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Another possible culprit for the mysterious disease could be chronic exposure to domoic acid, a neurotoxin found in shellfish off the coast of New Brunswick. Cashman added that the team does not rule out the possibility that it is a new, yet unknown prion disease or a syndrome caused by an infectious agent such as bacteria, viruses, or fungi.