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An increasing number of sea lions are being found seriously ill and convulsing on the coast of California in the US, suffering from what seems to be a form of epilepsy similar to the same disease presented in human beings.
The culprit is a neurotoxin called domoic acid, which can cause memory loss, seizures, tremours and even death. This acid is found in algae blooms, also known as red tides, which have recently been found inhabiting the San Francisco coast and beyond, the feeding ground of many crabs, mussels, tiny fish and other shellfish, where the acid concentrates when eaten and then when the fish are eaten by sea lions further down the coast, it becomes a killer.
Once ingested, the sea lions suffer damage to the brain, and their memory centres, which mimics the brain defects in humans with temporal lobe epilepsy. The brain starts to produce neurons and brain rewiring patterns which are closely matched to what is found in patients suffering from epilepsy.
Temporal lobe epilepsy is one of the most common forms of epilepsy in humans and is usually caused by damage to the brain which leads to seizures and memory loss. Oddly enough, there has only ever been once case of a human ingesting domoic acid – a Canadian tourist to Prince Edward Island became severely ill in 1987 after consuming some contaminated mussels. The man suffered intense nausea, vomiting, convulsions and a coma. However, although he recovered, he was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy almost a year later.
Seeing sea lions suffer similar damage from this deadly neurotoxin could lead to future research and treatment being developed by scientists worldwide in a bid to help sufferers of the disease – in helping cure the animals who have ingested the toxin, they can help treat epileptic patients.