Canadian doctors have been stumped by an unknown neurological disease that has affected residents of a small province. The ailment has been described by one neurologist as a medical "whodunit", which occurs a couple of times per century.
The first known case of the disease was reported in 2015, but news of it became public just recently, when a memo written about it by New Brunswick’s chief medical doctor was leaked to the press in March.
The mysterious ailment has various symptoms: insomnia, impaired motor function, visual disorders, and hallucinations - including visions of the dead. At least 48 people are known to have suffered from the disease, which has the bizarre working name Neurological Syndrome of Unknown Etiology (NSUE) in New Brunswick. Six people have died from it.
The patients range from 18 to 84 years old. Gabrielle Cormier, 20, once participated in figure skating competitions and wanted to become a pathologist. Two years ago, she began feeling strong fatigue, had visions that looked like static from television, and began bumping into things. Now Gabrielle is walking with a cane and suffers from hallucinations, memory lapses, and involuntary jerking movements.
"I was just starting what is supposed to be the best chapter of your life and then it disappeared. I don’t know if I will die or live out the rest of my life with these symptoms", she told The New York Times.
Conspiracy Theories and Potential Clues
The news has prompted concern among Canadians and spawned numerous conspiracy theories, with people blaming cell phone towers, coronavirus vaccines, and even fracking.
"People are alarmed. They are asking, 'Is it environmental? Is it genetic? Is it fish or deer meat? Is it something else?' Everyone wants answers", said Yvon Godin, the mayor of Bertrand, a village on the Acadian Peninsula, where people have been afflicted by the mysterious ailment.
Doctors investigating the disease argue over whether it is a new ailment or a known disease that hasn’t been diagnosed. Dr Alier Marrero, who observed the first known case of NSUE, said tests showed brain atrophy and neurological dysfunction, but noted that none of the results have led to a clear diagnosis.
Initially, doctors suspected that the mysterious ailment could be a form of prion disease, but later autopsies disproved this hypothesis.
Another theory suggests that the disease is caused by a toxin known as BMAA. It is produced by blue-green algae and has been linked to brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Other theories include exposure to bacteria, fungus, and domoic acid, a neurotoxin found in shellfish.
Dr Marrero said he had consulted with leading scientists across the world who also struggle to understand what causes the disease. "It was not something we have seen before", he told The New York Times.
Doctors investigating the mysterious syndrome also emphasise that the obscurity surrounding it reflects how some neurological conditions can baffle even the world's best scientists. Researchers also note that the slow response to the unknown ailment shows how challenging it has become to deal with other medical conditions when all health service attention has been directed to the coronavirus pandemic.