In the US, a dangerous fungus infects the human brain. What do you need to know?


Among all existing diseases, mycoses (they are also fungal infections) occupy a special place. Different types of these microscopic fungi can affect several body systems and often lead to death. Most often, fungal infections occur in people with weakened immune systems, which was clearly demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic: people who had a severe coronavirus began to get sick with mucormycosis, an infection that affects the sinuses, brain and lungs (for which it was popularly called “black mold”). It seems that you can’t think of anything worse, but no: recently the media reported two cases of a rare Rift Valley fever in the United States, the causative agent of which is fungi that live in soil, rotting wood and bird droppings. Once in the human body, the pathogen contributes to the development of fungal meningitis, accompanied by swelling of the brain.

What is mycosis?

Recently, The Insider told the story of 33-year-old Los Angeles resident Desiree Chan, who contracted athlete’s foot after suffering from COVID-19. It all started with acute pain in the neck, due to which the woman spent several days in bed and then went to the doctor. But since the test for covid came back negative, the doctor considered the pain in the back to be an ordinary phenomenon and prescribed painkillers. However, when Chan complained of a severe cough six days later, she was sent for an x-ray.

The resulting image revealed the presence of an infiltrate in the lungs – accumulation of fluid (exudate) in the lung parenchyma, which is why the woman was diagnosed with pneumonia and prescribed antibiotics. But despite the treatment, Chang got worse and worse. Ultimately, the cough became so “debilitating” that the patient could not talk on the phone and quickly lost weight.

At that time, neither Chan nor the experts understood what was happening, and it took several weeks and countless tests to make a diagnosis, the publication reports.

Desire Chan had a rare fungal disease

Chan was eventually diagnosed with Rift Valley Fever, a rare fungal infection that has become more common lately (due to the covid pandemic). The clinical picture looks like this – a person with a weakened immune system inhales spores of the fungus Coccidioides, which multiplies rapidly throughout the body.

Luckily, the story ended well and Chan recovered, though she was on antifungal medications for most of 2021 with a lot of side effects, including loss of appetite and hormonal fluctuations. In the same year, another case of mycosis was registered in California – specialists could not diagnose the infection in a young man for a month, during which the patient’s condition rapidly worsened.

History of infection

Health experts are increasingly finding the fungus in unexpected places, likely as a result of rapid climate change. At the same time, not every person who inhales Coccidioides immitis spores becomes ill, and life-threatening symptoms occur in 1 out of 10 people (especially if the infection spreads to the skin, joints, or affects the spinal cord). People with weakened immune systems, including pregnant women and the elderly, are most at risk.

Under natural conditions, cattle, sheep, dogs, kangaroos, squirrels, monkeys, rabbits, etc. are also susceptible to K.

Given the increasing incidence of fungal infections, the researchers turned their attention to the rare Rift Valley fever. Most of all, they were interested in pathogen mutations – once in the human body, the fungus quickly leaves the lungs through the bloodstream and attacks other organs. The fungus C. neoformans is the leading cause of the deadly fungal meningitis today .

parasitic mushrooms

The fungus feels best in the lungs, and therefore actively grows, becoming about 10 times larger (compared to its normal size). Just imagine – the pathogen becomes so large that it forces the immune system to attack itself. At the same time, there are much fewer fungal cells in other parts of the body. This ability, according to researchers from the University of Utah, helps the fungus to colonize other organs and in particular the brain.

The cells of the fungus in the lungs are diverse, have a different size and appearance. We believe that there is a good reason why the pathogen is actively moving inside the host organism, says Jessica Brown, lead author of the new study.

Scientists have discovered that the cells of this parasitic fungus change their size

The results of the work, published in the scientific journal Cell Host & Microbe, proved the assumptions of scientists – Cryptococcus neoformans increases and decreases in size. Through this activity, the pathogen learns to resist the immune system and the body’s microenvironments. The researchers figured this out by infecting lab mice and observing fungal cells of varying sizes. It turned out that they are undergoing tremendous changes. One of the reasons for the abnormal growth of the fungus is phosphate, a chemical that accumulates in the lungs and contributes to the further spread of the infection.

Oddly enough, the ability of the fungus to effectively affect the brain could arise from one unique source: bird droppings (mainly pigeon due to the presence of a large amount of phosphate in it). Further study of this pathogen is necessary for rapid diagnosis, new methods of treatment and prevention of infection. In the wild, according to experts, the fungus can be found in rotting wood.

The diagnosis is established in the laboratory.

Recall also that parasitic fungi infect ants and wasps, turning them into real zombies. And if you played The Last of Us, then you know what cordyceps mushroom looks like and what it is, the spores of which (as in the case of Cryptococcus neoformans) enter the body when you inhale.

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