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A Tapeworm Crawled Around In This Man’s Brain for Years

Studying the extracted parasite might help others avoid a similar infestation

The worm's progression through the man's brain, over a four year period. (Photo: Ngui Antoun)
smithsonian.com

Several years ago, a 50-year-old Chinese man living in the U.K. visited the hospital. He had recently been experiencing a host of problems including vivid flashbacks, splitting headaches, seizures and an altered sense of smell, the New Scientist describes. His doctors, however, could find nothing particularly wrong with him, save some inflammation in his brain. But there was no tumor to explain it, and tests for numerous diseases came back negative. 

This went on for four years, the New Scientist continues. The inflammation in his brain continued, but oddly, it moved, slowly migrating from one area of his brain to another. When the doctors finally decided to operate, they discovered the horrible truth: a centimeter-long tapeworm had taken up residence in the man's brain. 

The tapeworm, it turned out, was Spirometra erinaceieuropaei, a rare species from Asia that had never before been seen in the U.K., the New Scientist writes. The species usually infests animals and has only been reported in about 300 human cases.

It's impossible to know how the patient acquired the parasitic hitchhiker, although since he made frequent trips back to China, his doctors say it could have been from eating undercooked infected reptile, amphibian or crustacean meat, or from rubbing raw frog flesh on his eyes—a remedy, in traditional Chinese medicine, for sore eyes, the Independent reports.

The patient, freed from the worm, has fully recovered. 

As for the tapeworm, the scientists seized the opportunity to sequence its genome, which turns out to be 10 times larger than any other tapeworm genome sequenced thus far, the Independent reports. The parasite's genetics revealed that it is likely susceptible to at least one but possibly two conventional anti-tapeworm drugs on the market, the New Scientist adds.

While the man's ordeal was truly horrific, his case at least served as a learning experience for doctors, who will hopefully recognize any similar infections in the future and quickly zap those parasites with an easy round of pills rather than brain surgery. 

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