PANDAS syndrome web searches soar by 800%: All about the disorder, plus more health-related questions Canadians asked this week

This week, people across the country were curious about PANDAS syndrome, new CTE research and brain parasites.

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A voice actress's PANDAS syndrome, a new CTE study and RFK Jr.'s brain worm were all on people's minds this week in Canada. (Photo via Instagram and Getty Images)
Canadians were looking for answers around PANDAS syndrome, CTE and worms in the brain. (Photo via Instagram and Getty Images)

Canadians are all about getting answers to their health-related questions, oftentimes taking to the internet to find more information about mysterious diseases and rare disorders. This past week, one of the top queries across the country included searches about the rare condition called PANDAS syndrome. Over the past seven days, there was an 800 per cent rise in people searching for the term.

On April 30, voice actress Zoey Alexandria reportedly died in Chicago after a battle with PANDAS, which stands for pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections. The 29-year-old, best known for voicing a character called The Unknown in video game Dead By Daylight, had shared on her YouTube channel she stopped treatments for her illness in March.

PANDAS is a term used to describe a group of symptoms like tics and obsessive-compulsive behaviours following a strep infection. It's usually only diagnosed in children, typically between ages three and 12, but it essentially disrupts someone's normal neurological functioning. Canadian Blood Services has indicated other symptoms of PANDAS syndrome may include:

  • Anorexia

  • Anxiety

  • Irritability

  • Hyperactivity

  • Sleep disturbances

  • Mood swings

  • Urinary problems

The disorder was first reported in 1998, but the rate of prevalence in children is believed to be underestimated due to misdiagnosed conditions. While typically rare in adults, Alexandria was diagnosed recently with the disorder because of chronic strep infections and a deficiency of the antibody called immunoglobulin G.

This week there was a 600 per cent increase in searches asking about CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's likely pegged off news of a first-of-its-kind Canadian research study that's working towards a breakthrough for the brain disorder.

A doctor points towards a screen showing brain scans. (Photo via Getty Images)
A team at Toronto's CAMH is working to hopefully make a breakthrough progress when it comes to diagnosing CTE. (Photo via Getty Images)

CTV News reported Wednesday that inside Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), scientific director Neil Vasdev hopes his team will soon be able to diagnose CTE in a living person. It's possible news that would be a game-changer for thousands of people worldwide and could stop "the disease in its tracks," Vasdev noted.

CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that can develop in people who have a history of multiple head injuries, according to Brain Injury Canada, such as athletes and veterans. It's caused by concussions and nonconcussive impacts, and begins after a structural protein in neurons called tau misfolds and malfunctions. This leads the adjacent proteins misfolding, leaving the abnormal tau to spread throughout the brain and kills cells, according to the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Symptoms of the condition will typically only arise several years after a person suffers head injuries. Currently, the neurodegenerative disease can only be diagnosed in brain tissue once someone dies. This new research at CAMH is focusing on taking a drug and making it radioactive, which will hopefully allow doctors to look inside a living brain and detect any red flags as it travels throughout the body.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. attends a Cesar Chavez Day event at Union Station on March 30, 2024 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
The New York Times reported this week that doctors found a dead worm in Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s brain more than a decade ago. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Canadians were also on the hunt for information about brain worms, with searches up 550 per cent this past week. This comes after The New York Times reported on Wednesday that doctors had discovered a dead worm in Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s brain, according to a 2012 divorce deposition. That same day, the American politician posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he could still "beat [former] President Trump and President Biden in a debate" if he ate five more brain worms.

A statement from the presidential candidate's campaign on Wednesday said questioning his health is "a hilarious suggestion, given his competition" in the upcoming U.S. election. The statement went on to note Kennedy had travelled various continents back then, which is where he likely contracted the parasite. However, it added "the issue was resolved more than 10 years ago, and he is in robust physical and mental health."

For a follow-up article, The New York Times spoke to several experts, including Scott Gardner, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who specializes in parasites. He said there are "legions" of organisms that can affect the brain, including Toxoplasma gondii and some amoeba, in addition to worms.

Diagram of a tapeworm in a human intestine. (Photo via Getty Images)
Symptoms of a tapeworm infection typically won't appear in a patient for months or even years. (Photo via Getty Images)

There are various ways people can contract these parasites. Tapeworms are typically transmitted when a person comes into contact with raw or undercooked food, as well as feces. However, it can take months or even years for someone to show any symptoms of an infection. Symptoms may include headaches, seizures, confusion, problems with attention and balance issues.

Aside from worms, brain-eating amoebas can infect a patient. While extremely rare, they can lead to fatal swelling of the brain or spinal cord, where the parasite can enter the nose when people swim in lakes or rivers.

Toxoplasmosis, on the other hand, is a more common parasitic brain infection people can contract after eating undercooked meat or shellfish, drinking contaminated water or accidentally ingesting the parasite when coming into contact with it in cat feces. The illness can make someone feel like they have the flu, but most people won't develop symptoms and will carry the parasite for a long time.

If you wanted to know if you had a parasite in your brain, Gardner noted "you wouldn't know yourself, unless someone is looking." While a blood test can sometimes detect antibodies that arise in response to a parasite, it would take an MRI or CT scan to diagnose an infection. The best way to prevent many of these infections, especially while travelling, is to thoroughly wash your hands when handling food, cooking food properly and ensuring you drink clean water.

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