Thoughts on Naegleria fowleri, “brain eating amoeba”
Naegleria fowleri: a protist that can be a cyst, an amoeba squelching along, or a whirling swimming flagellate; an organism found all over the world that loves warm water, a free living organism that can adopt a parasitic lifestyle; an organism that will almost certainly kill you if it gets into your brain. Beautiful. Fascinating. Deadly.
Every year during the sweltering days of summer we hear of deaths caused by the “brain eating amoeba.” This year a man died after teaching his daughter how to swim in an Indiana lake, and several children in other American states died after swimming in warm fresh water. Children have died after playing in bath water at home, and the use of neti pots to rinse the sinuses, or ritual inhalation of water into the sinuses, has resulted in deaths as well. The disease is called primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, or PAM.
Naegleria fowleri is just one of more than 20 Naegleria species found in the environment, but to date it is the only one found in human cases of PAM. What’s so special about N. fowleri? Perhaps it has something to do with N. fowleri being a thermophile – in other words it loves warmth. It can survive at temperatures as high as 45ºC, which would make it very comfortable at a normal human body temperature, and impervious to the highest fever. But many of the other species like high temperatures as well, so that’s not the whole answer.
Perhaps it’s important that N. fowleri adapts easily to axenic conditions – meaning that it doesn’t need a community of other organisms around to be happy; it can thrive all by itself. This does make it stand out from the other species, but living inside another organism isn’t exactly axenic, and strains of N. fowleri grown axenically in the lab lose their ability to produce disease. How this characteristic might help it invade the brain in the first place, then, and thrive there, is a tantalizing question – at least to me.
Studies have shown that N. fowleri isolated in the environment contain food vacuoles full of bacteria, whereas those isolated from cases of PAM contain vacuoles full of cell debris. So, when the organism is parasitic, it uses host cells as a food source instead of bacteria. It produces an enzyme that enables it to do this (Chang). This is clearly important, but do we know whether other Naegleria species produce a similar enzyme?
Perhaps it’s a combination of all these factors, and possibly others, that make N. fowleri uniquely equipped to be a “brain eating amoeba.” The question remains to be answered. What’s easier to understand is why it’s so rare, and yet so predictable. In order for N. Fowleri to get into a human brain, very warm water containing the organism must be inhaled into the nasal sinuses. This event is relatively uncommon, but can be expected to happen in the summer months when people – particularly young people – play in the water to cool off.
Chang SL. “Pathogenisis of Pathogenic Naegleria amoeba.” Folia Parasitol (Praha), 1979; (26)3:195-200.
De Jonckheere JF. “A Century of Reasearch on the Amoeboflagellate Genus Naegleria.” Acta Protozool, 2002; 41: 309-342.