In a groundbreaking event, Australian neurosurgeons have achieved a significant medical feat by successfully extracting an eight cm-long parasitic roundworm from a patient’s brain. The woman had been experiencing memory lapses and depression, which led to the discovery.
This extraordinary occurrence marks the first known instance of such a parasitic infection in humans. Researchers from The Australian National University (ANU) and the Canberra Hospital identified this unique case when they encountered a live roundworm from a carpet python within the brain of a 64-year-old Australian woman.
The roundworm, known as Ophidascaris robertsi, was extracted from the patient during a brain surgery procedure while it was still alive and moving. It is suspected that the patient might have harbored larvae or young roundworms in other parts of her body, including the lungs and liver.
According to Sanjaya Senanayake, an infectious disease expert leading the ANU and Canberra Hospital, “This marks the first instance of Ophidascaris infection in a human.” He further explained that this case is exceptional not only due to its occurrence in a human brain but also in any mammalian brain. Typically, roundworm larvae are found in smaller mammals and marsupials, which are then consumed by pythons, allowing the parasite’s life cycle to unfold within the snake.
The Ophidascaris robertsi roundworms are commonly found in carpet pythons. They inhabit the python’s digestive system, laying eggs that are later expelled through the python’s feces. Humans are accidental hosts if infected by Ophidascaris robertsi larvae.
The patient, hailing from southeastern New South Wales, Australia, is believed to have contracted the roundworm while gathering a type of native grass called Warrigal greens near a lake close to her residence. The python had likely deposited the parasite in its feces near this grass. The woman used the greens for cooking and could have contracted the parasite through direct contact or ingestion. She initially experienced abdominal pain and diarrhea, followed by fever, cough, and breathing difficulties.
In retrospect, the aforementioned symptoms were likely caused by the migration of roundworm larvae from the intestines to other organs, including the lungs and liver. Despite conducting respiratory samples and a lung biopsy, no parasites were identified in these specimens, as explained by Karina Kennedy, Director of Clinical Microbiology at Canberra Hospital and Associate Professor at the ANU Medical School.
Senanayake emphasized that this unprecedented case underscores the risk of diseases transferring from animals to humans, particularly as our habitats increasingly overlap. He noted that over the past three decades, around 30 new infections have emerged globally, with approximately 75 percent being zoonotic, implying transmission from animals to humans. This includes viruses like coronaviruses. The patient remains under the vigilant care of a team of infectious disease and neurological specialists.