6 Fast Facts About Brain-Eating Amoebae

iStock.com/Dr_Microbe
iStock.com/Dr_Microbe

If “brain-eating amoebae” isn't the most terrifying combination of words you’ve ever heard, it will be by the time you finish reading this article. Although infection from the Naegleria fowleri amoeba is rare, it does happen from time to time. Just last month, a 29-year-old man died from a brain-eating amoeba after visiting a wave pool in Waco, Texas. The CDC is currently investigating the incident. Here are a few things you should know about this pernicious organism.

1. THEY LIVE IN WARM FRESH WATER.

Warm bodies of fresh water like lakes, rivers, and hot springs are usually where the single-celled amoebae like to hang out. They can also be found in soil, and in extremely rare cases, in contaminated tap water or swimming pools that haven’t been properly chlorinated. While most people encounter the amoebae in lakes or rivers, the CDC reports found that between 2007 and 2016, one person became infected after using a backyard slip-n-slide and three people became infected after using a nose irrigation device. Contaminated tap water was to blame in all four cases.

2. YOU WON’T GET INFECTED FROM SWALLOWING CONTAMINATED WATER, THOUGH.

Infection only occurs when water containing Naegleria fowleri enters the nose. In other words, accidentally swallowing river water while swimming doesn’t put someone at risk, but getting water up one’s nose does. Although the presence of Naegleria fowleri in fresh water is common, infections still remain rare.

3. THEY’RE NOT USUALLY ATTRACTED TO HUMANS.

These amoebae don’t go out of their way to feast on human brains. In fact, they’re usually content to eat bacteria found in the soil or sediment of lakes or rivers. “Normally, it’s totally harmless, doing its own thing in the mud, eating whatever it finds there, going about its business, not bugging anybody,” biologist Dan Riskin told Mental Floss in 2017. However, once it enters a new environment (such as an unsuspecting victim’s nasal cavity), it resumes eating whatever it can find.

4. AFTER ENTERING THE NOSE, THEY TRAVEL UP THE OLFACTORY NERVE.

Once inside the nasal cavity, an amoeba starts eating away at the olfactory bulbs, which are responsible for processing information about odors. “It makes its way up that olfactory nerve, reproducing and eating, until it hits the brain,” Riskin said. “And once it’s in the brain, it’s game over for the kid that had it shoved up his nose.” That’s because the amoebae eat brain tissue and cells, resulting in brain swelling, necrosis, and usually death.

5. THE DISEASE IT CAUSES IN HUMANS IS ALMOST ALWAYS FATAL.

Once infected, a disease called primary amebic meningoencephalitis (PAM) sets in. Early symptoms include severe headache, fever, nausea, and vomiting, and some of the stage-two symptoms are seizures, hallucinations, altered mental state, and coma. Generally, people start to show symptoms about five days after infection and die five days after that. The fatality rate is more than 97 percent, but again, infection is rare. Of the 143 cases of infection reported between 1962 and 2017, only four people survived, according to the CDC. But don't worry, your odds of contracting a brain-eating amoeba are about 1 in 70 million.

6. YOU CAN REDUCE YOUR RISK BY PLUGGING YOUR NOSE.

Brain-eating amoebae shouldn't be at the top of your list of concerns while swimming—drowning, for instance, is a far greater danger—but there are still a few things you can do to protect yourself. Try squeezing your nose shut while jumping or diving, or keep your head above water while taking a dip.

Not-So-Fancy Feast: Your Cat Probably Would Eat Your Rotting Corpse

Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images
Tycson1/iStock via Getty Images

Cat enthusiasts often cite the warmth and companionship offered by their pet as reasons why they’re so enamored with them. Despite these and other positive attributes, cat lovers are often confronted with the spurious claim that, while their beloved furry pal might adore them when they’re alive, it won’t hesitate to devour their corpse if they should drop dead.

Though that’s often dismissed as negative cat propaganda spread by dog people, it turns out that it’s probably true. Fluffy might indeed feast on your flesh if you happened to expire.

A horrifying new case study published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences offers the fresh evidence. The paper, first reported by The Washington Post, documents how two cats reacted in the presence of a corpse at Colorado Mesa University’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, or body farm, where the deceased are used to further forensic science for criminal investigations.

The study’s authors did not orchestrate a meeting between cat and corpse. The finding happened by accident: Student and lead author Sara Garcia was scanning surveillance footage of the grounds when she noticed a pair of cats trespassing. The cats, she found, were interested in the flesh of two corpses; they gnawed on human tissue while it was still in the early stages of decomposition, stopping only when the bodies began leaching fluids.

The cats, which were putting away one corpse each, didn’t appear to have a taste for variety, as they both returned to the same corpse virtually every night. The two seemed to prefer the shoulder and arm over other body parts.

This visual evidence joins a litany of reports over the years from medical examiners, who have observed the damage left by both cats and dogs who were trapped in homes with deceased owners and proceeded to eat them. It’s believed pets do this when no other food source is available, though in some cases, eating their human has occurred even with a full food bowl. It’s something to consider the next time your cat gives you an affectionate lick on the arm. Maybe it loves you. Or maybe it has something else in mind.

[h/t The Washington Post]

Wolf Puppies Play Fetch, Too, Study Finds

Christina Hansen Wheat
Christina Hansen Wheat

It took thousands of years of selective breeding for wolves to become the Golden Retrievers you see at dog parks today. Domesticated dogs are very different from their wild counterparts, but according to a new study, they may have a surprising trait in common. Researchers found that some wolf puppies are willing to play fetch with total strangers, suggesting that following human commands is intrinsic to canines.

For their study in the journal iScience, researchers from Stockholm University in Sweden set out to find how domestication affects behaviors in young wolves. They raised litters of wolf and dog pups separately from 10 days old and placed them in various scenarios.

When the scientists tested how the wolf puppies would respond to a game of fetch, they expected to be ignored. Chasing a ball and bringing it back requires understanding human commands and obeying them—abilities that were thought to only have emerged in dogs post-domestication.

The first two wolf groups met expectations by showing little interest in the toy, but something different happened with the third set. Three eight-week old pups went after the ball and brought it back when they were encouraged to do so. This was the case even when the person giving the commands was someone they had never met before.

Even though most of the puppies didn't play fetch, the fact that those who did belonged to the same litter indicates a "standing variation" for a retrieving trait in wolves. "When you talk about a specific trait in the context of standing variation, it means that there is variation for the expression of this trait within a given population," co-author Christina Hansen Wheat tells Mental Floss. "For our study it suggests that, while probably rare, standing variation in the expression of human-directed behavior in ancestral populations could have been an important target for early selective pressures exerted during dog domestication." In other words, ancient people seeking to domesticate wolves might have focused on some wolves' innate ability to follow human commands.

The first dogs were domesticated as far back as 33,000 years ago. Over millennia, humans have selected for traits like loyalty, friendliness, and playfulness to create the modern dog, but these new findings could mean that the dog's earliest canine ancestors were genetically predisposed toward some of these behaviors.

"All three litters were brought up under identical and standardized conditions across years," Hansen says of the pups in the study. "With this significant effort to control the environmental conditions, it is likely that the differences in behavior across litters to some extent have a genetic basis."

After raising the dog and wolf litters for three years and completing that part of their study, the researchers will continue to analyze their data to see if there are any other adorable (or weird) traits the two groups share.

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