Theodore Nash sees only a few dozen patients a year in his clinic at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. That’s pretty small as medical practices go, but what his patients lack in number they make up for in the intensity of their symptoms. Some fall into comas. Some are paralyzed down one side of their body. Others can’t walk a straight line. Still others come to Nash partially blind, or with so much fluid in their brain that they need shunts implanted to relieve the pressure. Some lose the ability to speak; many fall into violent seizures.
Underneath this panoply of symptoms is the same cause, captured in the MRI scans that Nash takes of his patients’ brains. Each brain contains one or more whitish blobs. You might guess that these are tumors. But Nash knows the blobs are not made of the patient’s own cells. They are tapeworms. Aliens.
A blob in the brain is not the image most people have when someone mentions tapeworms. These parasitic worms are best known in their adult stage, when they live in people’s intestines and their ribbon-shaped bodies can grow as long as 21 feet. But that’s just one stage in the animal’s life cycle. Before they become adults, tapeworms spend time as larvae in large cysts. And those cysts can end up in people’s brains, causing a disease known as neurocysticercosis.
“Nobody knows exactly how many people there are with it in the United States,” says Nash, who is the chief of the Gastrointestinal Parasites Section at NIH…
Image: A human brain overrun with cysts from Taenia solium, a tapeworm that normally inhabits the muscles of pigs. Courtesy of Theodore E. Nash , M.D.