Can parasite seizures cause seizures

Alliance against a parasite

The CYSTINET-Africa project researches the pork tapeworm and develops new strategies against infections

Pork tapeworm infections are the leading cause of epileptic seizures on the African continent. Prof. Andrea Winkler, head of the Global Neurology working group at Klinikum rechts der Isar, and other researchers from the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have launched a major project with partners from three African countries to combat the parasite. The alliance against the worm is cross-border and interdisciplinary: its members are at home in neurology and immunology, but also in veterinary medicine and computer science.

A fully grown pork tapeworm (Taenia solium) can grow to be seven meters long. The parasites live and grow in the human intestine after their larvae enter the body through food, especially pork. As uncomfortable as it sounds, the adult animals hardly cause any serious damage to health. Their larvae are more problematic. These usually live in pigs. If they get into the human body by mistake, they can form cysts in the brain and cause neurocysticercosis. Symptoms can include epileptic seizures, chronic headaches and, in the worst case, a coma.

Disease easily treatable

"Worldwide, 30 percent of epilepsy cases are caused by pork tapeworms," ​​says Prof. Andrea Winkler. "In and of itself, neurocysticercosis can be treated well. However, it is a poverty-related disease that spreads massively due to poor hygiene and a lack of education." Andrea Winkler is the co-director of the CYSTINET-Africa project, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research with eight million euros.

Together with scientists from Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia, the TUM working groups want to fight and research infections with the pork tapeworm. "We pursue a one-health approach," explains Andrea Winkler. "That means that we focus equally on the health of humans and animals." Dr. Helena Ngowi from Sokoine University of Agriculture in Morogoro, Tanzania, is a veterinarian and director of the project. At the Morogoro project location, strategies are being developed to prevent infections in humans and animals, for example through awareness-raising campaigns that are tailored to local needs.

Larvae trick the immune system

Prof. Clarissa Prazeres da Costa from the Institute for Medical Microbiology, Immunology and Hygiene will study the effects of the pork tapeworm on the immune system of infected patients. The worm's larvae apparently succeed in tricking the human immune system. "We do not yet understand why these complex organisms with their own metabolism cause almost no inflammatory reaction as long as they are alive, but only when they die, for example through the administration of drugs," says Prazeres da Costa. "Our hypothesis is that the larvae actively suppress the immune reaction, among other things, directly through parasite proteins, but also with the help of the body's own so-called suppressor cells."

To find out more, the immunologist and her team will collect cell samples from sick people in a large-scale study in Mozambique and then examine them using the technical possibilities of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at TUM.
The CYSTINET-Africa project started in mid-January with a meeting of all those involved in Tanzania and will initially run for five years. "We want to work even more closely together in the future when it comes to global health and get further projects off the ground," says Andrea Winkler. To this end, she, Clarissa Prazeres da Costa and the holders of the chairs for Neurology and Medical Microbiology are currently building the "Center for Global Health" at the Faculty of Medicine.


Schmidt V, Kositz C, Herbinger KH, Carabin H, Ngowi B, Naman E, Wilkins PP, Noh J, Matuja W, Winkler AS. Association between Taenia solium infection and HIV / AIDS in northern Tanzania: a matched cross sectional-study. Infectious Disease of Poverty. 2016 Dec 1; 5 (1): 111. DOI: 10.1186 / s40249-016-0209-7

Winkler AS, Richter R. Landscape analysis: management of neurocysticercosis with emphasis on low- and middle-income countries. World Health Organization 2015.

Winkler AS, Blocher J, Auer H, Gotwald T, Matuja W, Schmutzhard E. Epilepsy and neurocysticercosis in rural Tanzania - an imaging study. Epilepsia 2009; 50: 987-993. DOI: 10.1111 / j.1528-1167.2008.01867.x

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Prof. Dr. Dr. Andrea Winkler
Department of Neurology
Hospital right the Isar
Technical University of Munich
Tel: +49 89/45815015