This is very unnerving.

As if the ongoing global pandemic wasn’t enough, New Brunswick residents are now dealing with a puzzling brain disease. 

Healthcare workers began identifying a growing number of patients suffering from a variety of neurological symptoms in 2020, but to date, none of the 48 cases under investigation have received a diagnosis. 

According to the Government of New Brunswick’s website, symptoms can include irritability, anxiety, depression, memory loss, vision issues, hallucinations, muscle spasms, issues with balance and trouble walking, weight loss, unexplained pain in the limbs, as well as overall behaviour changes. 

But from the perspective of Dr. Alier Marrero, one of the province’s medical professionals who’s investigating the disease and who spoke with The The Globe and Mail, symptoms are more troubling. 

He’s been seeing patients in New Brunswick whose symptoms date back as early as 2015.

All patients, he says, experience visual issues. This includes blurred vision, trouble with depth perception and dizziness. Many are suffering from hallucinations, too, where they hear voices or feel a crawling sensation on their skin. In some cases, patients have been reported to experience Capgras syndrome, which is where you legitimately believe a family member has been replaced by a fake. 

They’re terrifying symptoms for both the individual as well as their family watching from the sidelines, and the disease doesn’t seem to discriminate against age. Those affected range from 18 to 85 years old with the median being 59 years old, and it’s a 50/50 split between men and women. Of the 48 active cases, six patients have died.

Still, the region to where people are being diagnosed does seem to be contained. Currently, it’s residents from the Moncton area of the province falling ill, as well as those living in the Acadian Peninsula, which is about two hours north of Moncton.

Possible causes being investigated  

Medical practitioners are still trying to figure out exactly what is causing this neurological disease. 

“Our first common idea is that there’s a toxic element acquired in the environment of this patient that triggers the degenerative changes,” Dr. Marrero told BBC, suggesting it could be food-related, or caused by exposure to a certain environment or animal.

The Public Health Agency of Canada is now involved and has tapped the Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Surveillance System (CJDSS) to determine whether it could be a variant of a human prion disease like the mad cow disease (BSE) that swept England in the ’80s and ’90s and killed hundreds.

But despite symptoms being similar to other Creutzfeldt-Jakob diseases, blood tests from the ill patients are coming back negative. This is leading doctors to speculate that this could be a completely new disease. 

“Before coming out with a definition of a new condition, you need to have a lot of information to be sure that you are not diagnosing something else,” Dr. Marrero told CBC.

The Government of New Brunswick has recently launched a website that documents the disease, including details about symptoms and the number of people it’s affected so far. If you live in New Brunswick and suspect that someone you know might be suffering from this unknown disease, the province is encouraging you to visit the website for further information.