Melbourne: A deadly soil bacteria, that kills nearly 90,000 people around the world each year, may be picked up by a simple sniff and can travel to the brain and spinal cord in just 24 hours, a new study warns.
The pathogenic bacteria Burkholderia pseudomallei, which causes the potentially fatal disease melioidosis, is prevalent in Australia and southeast Asia. In Australia, a person with melioidosis has a 20-50 per cent chance of dying once it infects the brain.
In southeast Asia, 50 per cent of the population may be positive for melioidosis and in places like Cambodia the mortality rate is as high as 50 per cent, researchers said. Previously, researchers did not understand how the bacteria travelled to the brain and spinal cord, or just how quickly.
The research from Griffith University and Bond University in Australia could lead to discoveries in how the common staphylococcus and acne bacterium also end up in the spinal cord, as well as how chlamydia travels to the brain in Alzheimer’s patients.
It could also provide answers for common back problems where bacteria have infected the bone, causing pain that could be simply treated with antibiotics.
James St John, from Griffith University, said the bacteria could slip into your system without you even knowing it.
The researchers studied mice to find that the bacteria travels from the nerves in the nasal cavity before moving to the brain stem and then into the spinal cord. Associate Professor Jenny Ekberg from Bond University said it was frightening how easily and quickly the bacteria could get into the brain.
“Bacteria have been implicated as a major causative agent of some types of back pain. We now need to work out whether the bacteria that cause back pain also can enter the brainstem and spinal cord via the trigeminal nerve,” said St John.
St John said the work was important as the bacteria had the potential to be used as a bioweapon and knowing how to combat it was extremely important. Professor Ifor Beacham from the Institute for Glycomics in Australia said the olfactory mucosa, located in the nose, is very close to the brain and it had long been known that viruses could reach the brain from the olfactory mucosa.
“Our latest results represent the first direct demonstration of transit of a bacterium from the olfactory mucosa to the central nervous system (CNS) via the trigeminal nerve; bacteria were found a considerable distance from the olfactory mucosa, in the brain stem, and even more remarkably in the spinal cord,” he said.
“These results add considerably to our understanding of this particular disease. It seems likely, however, that other bacteria may also transit from nose to CNS, although this has yet to be determined,” Beacham added. The study was published in the journal Immunity and Infection.