New hope on the horizon for those with Lyme disease
So often public programs on Lyme disease focus on how devastating the disease can be, especially for those who suffer from a chronic form of the disease and those who cannot get a solid diagnosis as to whether they have the disease at all.
So it was to an appreciative audience at Wilton Library on Wednesday, May 1, that Dr. Brian Fallon said he would be delivering good news, speaking about new research in the field in the last five years and where it is going.
He was joined by Dr. Charles Alexander, who spoke about the benefits meditation can bring to those who suffer from the disease and a study the two doctors are hoping to conduct that would measure real benefits Lyme patients might derive from meditation.
The program was particularly timely given that Friday, May 10, is Worldwide Lyme Disease Awareness Day.
Perhaps it was not surprising that the audience for this event nearly filled the Brubeck Room. Over the past five years, there have been more cases of Lyme disease in Fairfield County than in any of the other counties in the state, except for New London County in the two most recent years.
In Wilton the number of Lyme cases, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, were:
• 2011 — 5
• 2010 — 10
• 2009 — 24
• 2008 — 22
• 2007 — 22
In Fairfield County the numbers were:
• 2011 — 305
• 2010 — 335
• 2009 — 699
• 2008 — 596
• 2007 — 470
Perhaps the biggest news Dr. Fallon related was a new diagnostic test being conducted called the xenodiagnostic method.
“Blood tests are not all that sensitive,” he said, and for the 20% of Lyme patients who do not show the classic symptoms of a rash, arthritis-like pain and flu-like symptoms — and to a lesser extent meningitis or cranial nerve palsy — getting an accurate diagnosis can be frustrating.
The xenodiagnostic method has been tested with mice. When a “clean” tick — a non-Lyme carrier produced in a laboratory — is placed on a mouse that has been given antibiotics, it will suck up any Lyme spirochetes in that mouse. When the tick is tested, the spirochetes become apparent. It is then possible to say that mouse had been infected with Lyme even if it was presenting no symptoms.
Dr. Fallon said such testing is now being done with humans and results could be available by the end of the summer. If the results are conclusive, that would be front-page news, he said.
Although there are strong beliefs on both sides of the Lyme disease debate, some previously held views have changed.
For example, it was thought that any symptoms remaining after a course of antibiotics were from some other cause. From animal models it is known the Lyme organism can persist after antibiotics are given, Dr. Fallon said.
A positive Lyme test may or may not indicate an active infection. “It could just be an old disease,” Dr. Fallon said, and he would not recommend treating someone if they did not feel ill.
Psychiatric symptoms may respond to antibiotics, he said.
The infection may trigger changes in a person’s brain chemistry that might need to be addressed by drugs or psychotherapy.
Recent studies with animals have shown the Lyme organism can persist even with antibiotics, Dr. Fallon said. “We have more bacteria in our bodies than healthy cells,” he said, and trying to kill them all off would not only be foolhardy but would probably not be possible. “We just want our immune system to keep the spirochetes at bay.”
Scientists have also discovered in a study of Lyme and lupus patients that both had high levels of antibodies that attack the nervous system.
Lupus is a known autoimmune disease.
“There may be heightened immune responses contributing to Lyme,” he said, which has always been considered an infectious, not an autoimmune, disease. To that end, he said, people can take heart from the large amount of work being done in the field of multiple sclerosis that will help those with autoimmune diseases.
Dr. Alexander spoke about meditation as a complementary treatment in chronic Lyme or post-treatment Lyme disease.
Its effect is primarily within the brain and can be used, he said, to lessen pain and relieve stress.
There are 100 billion cells in the brain, each making 10,000 connections to other nerve cells. The brain changes with age and although the brain cannot build new neurons, meditation has been shown to increase synapses within the brain. Meditation can also slow down the loss of neurons with age, he said.
Meditation can also increase cortical thickness, which is a measure of the layers of the cerebral cortex. It roughly relates to the number of neurons.
Studies have shown that meditation may reduce inflammation and that immune response may be improved by meditation.
Together, Dr. Fallon and Dr. Alexander, both psychiatrists, are developing a pilot study to see if Lyme patients following a daily course of meditation for eight to 12 weeks show any improvement. Dr. Alexander said they expect to begin within the next month or so.
“If that looks good we will refine it with a control group,” Dr. Alexander said. The hope is to get a grant to prove that meditation is helpful and to look at its effect on the immune system.
Anyone interested in participating or seeking more information on the study may call Dr. Alexander at 203-259-8700.
Dr. Fallon is the director of the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center, director of the Center for Neuroinflammatory Disorders and Biobehavioral Medicine, and professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City.
Dr. Alexander is an assistant professor of psychiatry in the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University and co-founder of the Aquarian Path Holistic Health Center in Southport. He is also a certified teacher of Kundalini Yoga.