Brain-eating Amoeba Fascinates America

Ava Brenden, Staffer

Humans have had an obsession with the mind since the beginning of time. The studies of psychology, neurology and philosophy have all captivated students from different centuries, time periods, lifestyles and cultures. This, of course, extends to perhaps the darker side of neuroscience; what causes our brains to malfunction? And yes, this is a common thought and interest. We have too many zombie apocalypses to count, and plenty of obsessions with the idea of mind control, all pertaining to one centralized concept. What is the limit to our minds?           

But science fiction aside, there are real-life brain diseases that are horrifically fascinating as well. The most well known ones among the likes of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, etc. Many diseases can wreak havoc on our brains, and are notorious because of it. One neurological disease in particular has been sensationalized in America, which was discovered in 1899, but was really only studied until the early 2000s. The disease (or rather, protist) in question is Naegleria fowleri, otherwise known as N. fowleri. N. fowleri is a protist pathogen that infects the central nervous system, also known as the brain. This infection enters through the upper nasal area, where it infiltrates the neurological tissue, destroying the brain in the process. 

Now, before any unnecessary fear begins festering, this is an incredibly rare disease, hence why the hyper awareness around it is intriguing. Since 2005, there have only been 61 cases reported in the United States, which since we’ve become so desensitized to large scale statistics, we should understand how statistically insignificant this disease is. N. fowleri causes PAM, or Primary Amebic Meningoencephalitis, or swelling of the brain caused by an amoeba. This is acquired through swimming in fresh bodies of water that are warm in temperature, and thus impact mostly southern states and disproportionately affect young men, though the reason for the gender and age correlation is still unknown. 

In August of 2022, the third case of PAM was discovered just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. The case involved the lethal contraction of PAM by a small child who swam in a river. While this statistic is keeping on trend with the amount of cases per year, it does highlight a subtle but equally terrifying change in the trends; as global warming trends continue to affect more and more northern areas, N. fowleri follows. Cases as northern as Minnesota and northern California have been reported, which scientists assume is due to rising water temperatures along with rising global temperatures that are allowing this protist to survive in previously uninhabitable conditions. 

While N. fowleri is extremely deadly (with a 98 percent fatality rate), there have been a handful of lucky individuals to survive this disease. Because this disease is so rare, many doctors overlook this diagnosis in favor of a much more common disease, meningitis. Meningitis is a relatively common inflammation of the brain and spinal cord due to infection. Annually, there are thousands of cases (if you combine all types of meningitis you can contract), which is definitely more likely as opposed to the annual zero to eight cases in the United States. But because of the rapid progression of this disease, with the average time from diagnosis to death being five days, it is often too late to save the patient by the time they are properly diagnosed with PAM. 

Though N. fowleri is not prevalent, the fatality rate and relatively spontaneous infection have caused a sudden influx of interest, and will be closely studied as global temperatures continue to climb.