New Brunswick’s Mysterious Brain Disease

At the Last Futurist we feel the concern of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick residents. They are battling health scares on two fronts. Nova Scotia reported 175 Covid-19 cases today and at least 48 cases of the brain disease of the region first discovered in New Brunswick but spreading into Nova Scotia.

Since 2013, a mysterious brain disease has been found that has escaped media attention for a long time. The disease has a quick onset similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease [CJD]. CJD is a human prion disease, a fatal and rare degenerative brain disorder that sees patients present with symptoms like failing memory, behavioral changes and difficulties with coordination.

Typically this class of diseases is from eating contaminated food, meat or fungi. The symptoms are very serious and disabling. The current known cases are likely just the “tip of the iceberg”, as the condition is somewhat hard to diagnose.

The province says it’s currently tracking 48 cases, evenly split between men and women, in ages ranging from 18 to 85. Those patients are from the Acadian Peninsula and Moncton areas of New Brunswick. Six people are believed to have died from the illness.

Frequently, patients develop difficulties sleeping – severe insomnia or hypersomnia – and memory problems. There can be fast-advancing language impairments that make it difficult to communicate and hold a fluent conversation, issues like stuttering or word repetition.

Another symptom is rapid weight loss and muscle atrophy, as well as visual disturbances and co-ordination problems, and involuntary muscle twitching. Many patients need the assistance of walkers or wheelchairs.

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Severe insomnia
  • Memory problems
  • Mood problems
  • Language impairments
  • Weight loss and Muscle Atrophy
  • Visual disturbances
  • Several patients have presented with transient “Capgras delusion”, a psychiatric disorder in which a person believes someone close to them has been replaced by an impostor.

So far, a single Moncton based neurologist is leading the investigation into the condition, with help from a team of researchers and the federal public health agency. The Maritime governments have not been very transparent about this mysterious condition, namely because they too have more questions than answers. Canadian media covers this so poorly, the BBC had better coverage.

There’s no treatment, beyond helping to alleviate the discomfort of some of the symptoms. For now, the theory is that the disease is acquired, not genetic. The most common hypothesis is that a toxic element acquired in the environment of this patient triggers the degenerative changes.

The media has weirdly only been covering this story since 2021, when in the early spring an internal Public Health memo obtained by Radio Canada and dated March 5th was sent to medical professionals. The cat was out of the bag and home owners and Maritime residents were wondering about it.

The March 5th memo noted that 43 cases of the disease had been identified so far, and that five people had died. Just a few weeks later we are already up to 48 cases.

Potential Causes:

  • BMAA is produced by cyanobacteria, commonly known as blue-green algae.
  • Prion’s disease spectrum (e.g. genetic)
  • An “excitotoxin” like domoic acid (rare kind of food poisoning)
  • More research is needed

Dr Marrero says it’s possible it’s a wider phenomenon found outside the two regions — the Acadian peninsula, with its fishing communities and sandy beaches and Moncton, a city centre — where patients have currently been identified. This is perhaps why Canadian officials are being so quiet about it: while awareness of the condition began in New Brunswick it could be in the Canadian Maritime region as a whole.

Tests done on the patients have so far ruled out Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other prion diseases, and scientists are looking into the possibility that this is an entirely new disease. So for Canadian neurologists, it’s still a big mystery, but slowly more info is being made available.

The New Brunswick government has launched a website to update the public on this mysterious brain disease that has affected at least 48 people and killed six. The earliest cases appear to have been traced back to 2013 and the youngest person to contract it was 18.

At the time of referral by their health care provider, most of the individuals under investigation were living in the southeastern and northeastern regions of New Brunswick, around the Acadian Peninsula and Moncton areas. The new disease shows no gender predominance.

For diagnosis of your loved ones the website’s official symptoms are:

  • memory problems
  • muscle spasms
  • balance issues, difficulty walking or falls
  • blurred vision or visual hallucinations
  • unexplained significant weight loss
  • behaviour changes
  • pain in the upper or lower limbs

New Brunswick itself only has 4 new Covid-19 cases, so the brain disease is an even more pressing concern for some. These are typically small rural communities. Bathurst in New Brunswick has around 12,000 residents, for example.

Many family members of patients have been infuriated by Public Health’s lack of transparency on the issue and by the fact that it did not disclose the cluster until after the memo was leaked. It’s written about so little in the Canadian media, this is why at the Last Futurist we decided to pick up the story.

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