Lyme Infection

Tulane researchers found the bacterium that causes Lyme disease in the brain tissue of a woman who had long suffered neurocognitive impairment after her diagnosis and treatment for the tick-borne disease.

The presence of the corkscrew-shaped Borrelia burgdorferi spirochetes in the former Lyme disease patient’s brain and spinal cord were evidence of a persistent infection.

The 69-year-old woman, who experienced progressively debilitating neurological symptoms throughout her illness, had first experienced the classic symptoms of Lyme disease 15 years prior to her death.

“We will be interested in investigating the role that B. burgdorferi may play in severe neurological disease.”

MONICA EMBERS, National Primate Research Center

Using highly sensitive methods of detection validated with nonhuman primate samples at the Tulane National Primate Research Center, the research team concluded that at the time of her death, the woman’s central nervous system still harbored intact spirochetes in spite of aggressive antibiotic therapy for Lyme disease.

She experienced continual neurological decline including a severe movement disorder and personality changes, and eventually succumbed to Lewy body dementia. Lewy body dementia is associated with abnormal protein deposits in the nerve cells of the brain that can cause impairment in thinking, movement and mood, leading to a severe form of dementia.

This is the first time researchers have identified a possible correlation between Lyme disease infection and Lewy body dementia.

Monica Embers, associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane, is the lead author of the study published in Frontiers in Neurology.