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.

Do Dogs Understand What You’re Telling Them? Scientists Are Scanning Their Brains to Find Out

iStock/kozorog
iStock/kozorog

We all know that dogs can learn to respond to human words, but it’s not always clear what’s happening in a dog’s brain when they hear and recognize words like “cookie” and “fetch.” Do they have to rely on other clues, like gestures, to figure out what we mean by that word? Do they picture a dog biscuit when you say “cookie,” or just the sensation of eating? In a new study, scientists from Emory University and the New College of Florida tried to get to the bottom of this question by training dogs to associate certain objects with words like “blue” and “duck,” then using fMRI brain scanners to see what was happening in the dogs’ heads when they heard that word.

The study, published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, examined the brains of 12 different dogs of various breeds (you can see them below) that had been trained to associate two different objects with random words like “duck,” “blue,” and “beach ball.” Those two objects, which were different for each dog, were brought by the dogs’ owners from home or chosen from a selection of dog toys the researchers compiled. One object had to be soft, like a stuffed animal, and the other one had to be something hard, like a rubber toy or squeaky toy, to make sure the dogs could clearly distinguish between the two. The dogs were trained for several months to associate these objects with their specific assigned words and to fetch them on command.

Then, they went into the fMRI machine, where they had been trained to sit quietly during scanning. The researchers had the dogs lie in the machine while their owners stood in front of them, saying the designated name for the toys and showing them the objects. To see how the dogs responded to unknown words, they also held up new objects, like a hat, and referred to them by gibberish words.

Dogs in a science lab with toys
Prichard et al., Frontiers in Neuroscience (2018]

The results suggest that dogs can, in fact, discriminate between words they know and novel words. While not all the dogs showed the same neural response, they showed activation in different regions of their brains when hearing the familiar word versus the novel one.

Some of the dogs showed evidence of a greater neural response in the parietotemporal cortex, an area of the dog brain believed to be similar to the human angular gyrus, the region of the brain that allows us to process the words we hear and read. Others showed more neural activity in other regions of the brain. These differences might be due to the fact that the study used dogs of different sizes and breeds, which could mean differences in their abilities.

The dogs did show a surprising trend in their brains’ response to new words. “We expected to see that dogs neurally discriminate between words that they know and words that they don’t,” lead author Ashley Prichard of Emory University said in a press release. “What's surprising is that the result is opposite to that of research on humans—people typically show greater neural activation for known words than novel words." This could be because the dogs were trying extra hard to understand what their owners were saying.

The results don’t prove that talking to your dog is the best way to get its attention, though—it just means that they may really know what's coming when you say, "Want a cookie?"

Scientists Find Fossil of 150-Million-Year-Old Flesh-Eating Fish—Plus a Few of Its Prey

M. Ebert and T. Nohl
M. Ebert and T. Nohl

A fossil of an unusual piranha-like fish from the Late Jurassic period has been unearthed by scientists in southern Germany, Australian news outlet the ABC reports. Even more remarkable than the fossil’s age—150 million years old—is the fact that the limestone deposit also contains some of the fish’s victims.

Fish with chunks missing from their fins were found near the predator fish, which has been named Piranhamesodon pinnatomus. Aside from the predator’s razor-sharp teeth, though, it doesn’t look like your usual flesh-eating fish. It belonged to an extinct order of bony fish that lived at the time of the dinosaurs, and until now, scientists didn’t realize there was a species of bony fish that tore into its prey in such a way. This makes it the first flesh-eating bony fish on record, long predating the piranha. 

“Fish as we know them, bony fishes, just did not bite flesh of other fishes at that time,” Dr. Martina Kölbl-Ebert, the paleontologist who found the fish with her husband, Martin Ebert, said in a statement. “Sharks have been able to bite out chunks of flesh, but throughout history bony fishes have either fed on invertebrates or largely swallowed their prey whole. Biting chunks of flesh or fins was something that came much later."

Kölbl-Ebert, the director of the Jura Museum in Eichstätt, Germany, says she was stunned to see the bony fish’s sharp teeth, comparing it to “finding a sheep with a snarl like a wolf.” This cunning disguise made the fish a fearful predator, and scientists believe the fish may have “exploited aggressive mimicry” to ambush unsuspecting fish.

The fossil was discovered in 2016 in southern Germany, but the find has only recently been described in the journal Current Biology. It was found at a quarry where other fossils, like those of the Archaeopteryx dinosaur, have been unearthed in the past.

[h/t the ABC]

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