Neurocysticercosis is an infection that happens when you have the misfortune of eating bad pork. It causes severe seizures. Researchers say they've finally discovered how it tweaks the brain, and they might already have a drug to fix it.
In a new study to be published in an upcoming issue of the Public Library of Science, scientists at Baylor College of Medicine have figured out that something called Substance P is the culprit. And what's even more exciting is that we already have meds that can block Substance P. So: problem discovered and solved all at once!
That's the hope, anyway. First researchers have to test the available drugs for blocking Substance P to see if they'll work in humans. They already do the trick in mice, which is a good sign.
Neurosysticercosis is the number one cause of acquired epilepsy in developing countries and is an increasing problem in the United States. It causes seizures and headaches in about 400,000 people every year in Latin America.
The pork tapeworm, aka Taenia solium, which infects you via undercooked or faecal-contaminated pork works like so: as long as it stays alive in your body, it's not dangerous. But when the vermin come in contact with gastric acid in the stomach, they die and turn into larval cysts called oncospheres. Oncospheres can migrate into muscle, eyes and the brain, where they cause inflammation.
That's what got Prema Robinson, an assistant professor at Baylor, thinking about Substance P. It's a neuropeptide known to be involved with inflammation. So she performed autopsies and found Substance P in infected patients, but not in uninfected brains.
She also looked at mice and found that animals injected with Substance P suffered severe seizures. When she gave them a drug that blocks the Substance P receptor, they did not. She also found that rodents without a Substance P receptor didn't have seizures even when injected with a tapeworm infection.
The next step will be to test the anti-Substance P drug in people suffering from seizures as a result of neurocysticercosis. The underlying infection will still require treatment, but stopping seizures during that treatment is key for preventing the problems that come with them: falling and injuring your neck or head, drowning, getting in a car accident, and psychological problems including depression and anxiety. And, most importantly, you'll be able to continue to eat pork with impunity. [PLOS]
Image: Robert J. Galindo