Rare Disease Mystery: Nodding Syndrome May Be Linked to Parasitic Worm

Rural Uganda village gathering

Caption: Village in the East Africa nation of Uganda
Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In the early 1960s, reports began to surface that some children living in remote villages in East Africa were suffering mysterious episodes of “head nodding.” The condition, now named nodding syndrome, is recognized as a rare and devastating form of epilepsy. There were hints that the syndrome might be caused by a parasitic worm called Onchocerca volvulus, which is transmitted through the bites of blackflies. But no one had been able to tie the parasitic infection directly to the nodding heads.

Now, NIH researchers and their international colleagues think they’ve found the missing link. The human immune system turns out to be a central player. After analyzing blood and cerebrospinal fluid of kids with nodding syndrome, they detected a particular antibody at unusually high levels [1]. Further studies suggest the immune system ramps up production of that antibody to fight off the parasite. The trouble is those antibodies also react against a protein in healthy brain tissue, apparently leading to progressive cognitive dysfunction, neurological deterioration, head nodding, and potentially life-threatening seizures.

The findings, published in Science Translational Medicine, have important implications for the treatment and prevention of not only nodding syndrome, but perhaps other autoimmune-related forms of epilepsy. As people in the United States and around the globe today observe the 10th anniversary of international Rare Disease Day, this work provides yet another example of how rare disease research can shed light on more common diseases and fundamental aspects of human biology.

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Creative Minds: Interrogating a Master of Disguise

Monica Mugnier

Monica Mugnier

When I volunteered several years ago as a physician in a small hospital in West Africa, one of the most frustrating and frightening diseases I saw was sleeping sickness. Now, an investigator supported by the NIH Common Fund aims to figure out how this disease pathogen manages to evade the human immune system.

Monica Mugnier’s fascination with parasites started in college when she picked up the book Parasite Rex, a riveting, firsthand account of how “sneaky” parasites can be. The next year, while studying abroad in England, Mugnier met a researcher who had studied one of the most devious of parasites—a protozoan, spread by blood-sucking tsetse flies, that causes sleeping sickness in humans and livestock across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Happy New Year: Looking Back at 2016 Research Highlights

Science Breakthroughs of the Year 2016Happy New Year! While everyone was busy getting ready for the holidays, the journal Science announced its annual compendium of scientific Breakthroughs of the Year. If you missed it, the winner for 2016 was the detection of gravitational waves—tiny ripples in the fabric of spacetime created by the collision of two black holes 1.3 billion years ago! It’s an incredible discovery, and one that Albert Einstein predicted a century ago.

Among the nine other advances that made the first cut for Breakthrough of the Year, several involved the biomedical sciences. As I’ve done in previous years (here and here), I’ll kick off this New Year by taking a quick look of some of the breakthroughs that directly involved NIH support:

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Out of Africa: DNA Analysis Points to a Single Major Exodus

View of Africa from space

Credit: NASA

If you go back far enough, the ancestors of all people trace to Africa. That much is clear. We are all Africans. But there’s been considerable room for debate about exactly when and how many times modern humans made their way out of Africa to take up residence in distant locations throughout the world. It’s also unclear what evolutionary or other factors might have driven our human ancestors to set off on such a perilous and uncertain journey (or journeys) in the first place.

By analyzing 787 newly sequenced complete human genomes representing more than 280 diverse and understudied populations, three new studies—two of which received NIH funding—now help to fill in some of those missing pages of our evolutionary history. The genomic evidence suggests that the earliest human inhabitants of Eurasia came from Africa and began to diverge genetically at least 50,000 years ago. While the new studies differ somewhat in their conclusions, the findings also lend support to the notion that our modern human ancestors dispersed out of Africa primarily in a single migratory event. If an earlier and ultimately failed voyage occurred, it left little trace in the genomes of people alive today.

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Global Effort to End AIDS Would Save Millions of Lives

Prevent HIV AIDS

Scanning electromicrograph of an HIV-infected T cell/NIAID

Almost 37 million people around the world are now infected with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS [1]. But many don’t know they are infected or lack access to medical care. Even though major strides have been made in treating the infection, less than half receive antiretroviral therapy (ART) that could prevent full-blown AIDS and reduce the likelihood of the virus being transmitted to other people. Now, a new report restores hope that an end to this very serious public health challenge could be within reach—but that will require a major boost in commitment and resources.

The study conducted by an NIH-funded research team evaluated the costs and expected life-saving returns associated with ambitious goals for HIV testing and treatment, the so-called 90-90-90 program, issued by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) in 2014 [2]. The new analysis, based on HIV disease progression and treatment data in South Africa, finds that those goals, though expensive to implement, can be achieved cost-effectively, potentially containing the AIDS epidemic and saving many millions of lives around the globe.

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