Dozens struck down by mystery brain disease which causes patients to hallucinate

Doctors in Canada are increasingly concerned about a new and as yet unexplained brain disease with a list of disturbing symptoms that includes terrifying hallucinations and the feeling of phantom insects crawling on the skin.

Details of the bizarre and worrying cluster of cases only emerged publicly last week when a memo sent to health practitioners in Canada’s sparsely-populated New Brunswick province was leaked.

It asked doctors to report any patients presenting with symptoms similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) – the deadly neurological condition most commonly caused by eating BSE-infected meat.

The symptoms of the apparently new disease begin with unexplained aches and pains, which worsen into spasms, twitching and behavioural changes.

Despite similarities to vCJD, in which normal brain proteins 'mis-fold' into prions, the new condition is not thought to be directly related.

Dr Alier Marrero, the neurologist leading New Brunswick’s investigation, told The Guardian that as yet his team "don’t have evidence to suggest it’s a prion disease".

There have been 43 confirmed cases of the mystery condition so far.

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Dr Marrero and his team have been conducting an extensive study of each patient’s medical history, as well as a broad spectrum of scans and blood tests in a bid to rule out other possible causes for the symptoms – such as early-onset dementia or other neurological conditions – before confirming any new cases as part of the new Brunswick cluster.

The first case of the mystery condition was a single victim identified in 2015. In 2019 there were 11 cases confirmed and in 2020 the number of new cases rose to 24. So far, five people are known to have died from the mysterious illness.

"We have not seen over the last 20-plus years a cluster of diagnosis-resistant neurological disease like this one," Michael Coulthart, head of Canada’s CJD surveillance network, told reporters.

Valerie Sim, a researcher of neurodegenerative diseases at the University of Alberta, stressed that with so little information available about the un-named condition, the New Brunswick cluster could easily be just a number of completely unrelated neurological problems.

"I don’t really know if we even have a defined syndrome. There just isn’t enough information yet," Dr Sim said.

"We see odd neurological syndromes from time to time," she added.

"Sometimes we figure them out. Sometimes we don’t."

How and when the victims could have been infected remains unknown.

The average time it takes for the symptoms of variant CJD to occur after the initial infection is still unknown but thought to be over 10 years.

A new, and as yet unnamed condition bearing some similarities to the New Brunswick disease has also been identified in bears in Northern California, as well as deer and elk across the US.

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