BOSTON, NOV. 22 -- Some victims of Lyme disease may suffer memory loss, mood changes, tingling sensations, shooting pains and other signs of nerve damage that strike years after the initial tick bite, the doctor who discovered the disease reported today.
Antibiotic therapy can often relieve these lingering symptoms, although recovery is seldom complete.
"This is similar to syphilis," said Allen C. Steere. "Although the neurological symptoms and consequences are different, in both diseases there are long periods of latent infection in the brain followed by a variety of neurological disorders."
Steere and two colleagues who studied the disease cautioned that only a few Lyme patients suffer this lingering nerve disorder, and most can be cured with antibiotics given early in their infections.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by tiny ticks that are usually carried by deer and mice. It is common throughout the Northeast, Midwest and California.
Usually the first sign of Lyme disease is a red circular rash around the tick bite. It is often accompanied by fever, fatigue, aches and other flu-like miseries. In more advanced stages, the disease can cause arthritis as well as the neurological problems.
Steere, who first recognized the disease in Old Lyme, Conn., about 15 years ago, was senior author of the new report, written with two colleagues at the New England Medical Center in Boston. It was published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
The doctors studied 27 patients with chronic neurological symptoms that typically began a year or two after the start of their infections.
All but three of them had signs of mild brain disease, or encephalopathy. These included memory problems, such as forgetting names, missing appointments and misplacing objects. Others felt very sleepy during the day or were troubled by extreme irritability, growing angry over what would ordinarily be minor annoyances.
The other major category of disorder was polyneuropathy, a disorder of the nerves outside the brain. People often had back aches with shooting pains, tingling sensations and lack of feeling in their hands and feet.
The researchers found that a two-week course of antibiotic injections significantly improved the way the patients felt. But six months later, more than one-third had either relapsed or were no better.
The doctors speculated that the treatment failed because it did not wipe out the bacteria completely or because the patients' nervous systems were irreversibly damaged.