Years ago, I reported on the case of the songwriter Kris Kristofferson who thought his mind and memory were being wiped out by Alzheimer’s disease when, in actuality, it was the result of an infection he’d picked up from a bug bite.
Well, the news about these bugs and the brain dangers of their bites isn’t getting any better! Experts now believe ticks transmitting Lyme disease bite more than 300,000 Americans every year. And every year about 30,000 or more of these folks suffer Lyme disease infection and long-term brain problems.
Brain Fog and Fatigue
According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, at least one in ten people who are treated successfully for Lyme disease with antibiotics complain of persistent fatigue and brain fog for years after the initial infection is gone. And brain scans indicate that this condition, which scientists call post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS), produces widespread brain inflammation.
Hopkins researchers scanned the brains of people with PTLDS and found inflammation in eight different parts of the brain.1
“We thought there might be certain brain regions that would be more vulnerable to inflammation and would be selectively affected, but it really looks like widespread inflammation all across the brain,” says researcher Jennifer Coughlin.
Until now, many medical professionals believed that people who’d undergone successful Lyme disease treatment but still suffered from problems with brain fog and tiredness might have psychological problems. But the Hopkins researchers say they’ve shown there are inflammatory brain changes going on that are most likely the source of these problems.
“What this study does is provide evidence that the brain fog in patients with post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome has a physiological basis and isn’t just psychosomatic or related to depression or anxiety,” say researcher John Aucott.
How Can You Get Inflammation from an Infection that’s “Cured”?
Dr. Aucott explains that the inflammation is linked to over-activity by immune cells in the brain called microglia and astrocytes. If patients are to enjoy a full recovery from Lyme, doctors will have to go beyond killing off the pathogen. Future treatments will have to be designed to cool off this neuroinflammation. Plus, more studies are necessary to better understand if particular types of microglia and astrocytes are to blame for the inflammatory condition.
Unfortunately, right now it’s not even easy to do a quick and reliable test for Lyme disease itself, much less its long-term side effects. As researchers at Arizona State University note, a bullseye-rash sometimes appears around the site of a Lyme-related tick bite, but often no rash forms.
And after you get infected, the typical symptoms of Lyme — like muscle pain, fatigue, fever and/or headache — can indicate a wide range of other problems besides Lyme. So, it can take quite a while to get a correct diagnosis. That’s bad news, because time is of the essence in treating this infection.
As the disease progresses, it can cause heart issues, nerve problems and even arthritic pain. I’ve heard stories of people diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, when in fact they suffered Lyme disease.
Complicating matters, blood tests for Lyme are notoriously unreliable. However, a study at Arizona State points to a possible way of simultaneously testing for six separate biomarkers of the disease that, the scientists hope, will soon provide a faster, more dependable way to test for Lyme.2
At the same time, the scientists back at Hopkins believe they’ve come up with a combination treatment of three antibiotics that will help clear up many cases of Lyme disease that have been difficult to eradicate. In studies on animals, the antibiotic combo – consisting of daptomycin, doxycycline and cefoperazone – has successfully wiped out infections. But this treatment still needs to be tested on humans.3
So meanwhile, your best bet in the fight against Lyme is to stay away from places where you might be bitten by infected ticks. In wooded areas, stay on trails and don’t go into the brush. Stay out of tall grass. Pull ticks off immediately if you find them on your skin. And if you think you’re infected – start getting tested for the disease as soon as possible.
My Own Lyme Precautions
I live in a forested area in the northeast that is heavily infested with ticks, and it’s very common for people in this region to contract Lyme disease. I’ve known quite a few.
Personally, I don’t venture into woodlands or tall grass wearing shorts. I wear trousers, socks and shoes and tuck the trouser legs into the socks.
If I were bitten by a tick I would assume I may be infected and keep a sharp eye out for symptoms such as pain, headache, fever and of course the telltale “bullseye rash” at the site of the bite. If I thought there were any chance I was infected I would go to a doctor and get started on the antibiotics. Literally, every day matters in getting this disease under control.
I know seasoned hunters and burly outdoor workers who cover all their skin and spray with repellent during tick season. This isn’t sissy stuff. Lyme is a clear and present danger.