‘Alive and wriggling’ worm found in Australian woman’s brain after becoming forgetful and depressed

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A women, who was complaining of both being forgetful and depressed, shocked neurosurgeons as a 8cm-long parasitic roundworm was found in her brain

In a world first, doctors have found a live worm that’s normally found in pythons in the brain of an Australian woman. Prior to the shocking discovery, the woman complained of forgetfulness and depression.

It was a fairly normal day for Dr Sanjaya Senanayake, until a neurosurgeon called him, saying: “Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe what I just found in this lady’s brain – and it’s alive and wriggling.”

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The call was made just moments after Dr Hari Priya Bandi, had pulled an 8cm-long parasitic roundworm from her patient, which prompted the neurosurgeon to seek advice from colleagues on what to do next.

The patient was a 64-year-old woman from south-eastern New South Wales. She was first admitted to hospital in January 2021 after suffering three weeks of abdominal pain and diarrhoea, followed by a constant dry cough, fever and night sweats.

But, fast forward a year to 2022, she was referred to Canberra hospital after her symptoms now included forgetfulness and depression. An MRI scan of her brain revealed abnormalities requiring surgery.

Senanayake said: “But the neurosurgeon certainly didn’t go in there thinking they would find a wriggling worm. Neurosurgeons regularly deal with infections in the brain, but this was a once-in-a-career finding. No one was expecting to find that.”

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After the discovery, the team quickly came together to first identify what kind of roundworm it was and discuss if the patient required further treatment. They had to ask for outside help after their search came up empty.

Senanayake continued: “We just went for the textbooks, looking up all the different types of roundworm that could cause neurological invasion and disease. Canberra is a small place, so we sent the worm, which was still alive, straight to the laboratory of a CSIRO scientist who is very experienced with parasites.”

Stock image of woman holding her head in painStock image of woman holding her head in pain
Stock image of woman holding her head in pain | Maridav - stock.adobe.com

Eventually it was identified as the Ophidascaris robertsi. It is a roundworm usually found in pythons, and the Canberra hospital patient marks the world-first case of the parasite being found in humans.

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