Amnesic Seafood Poisoning

Amnesic Seafood Poisoning
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There’s a rare toxin, called domoic acid, that can turn up in tuna and other seafood and cause anterograde amnesia, the loss of short-term memory popularized in the movie Memento.

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A review was published recently on domoic acid, a potent neurotoxin found (extremely rarely) in seafood, that can cause seizures, coma, death; like the paralytic fish toxins, but, most interestingly, causes amnesia, permanent short-term memory loss. If anyone’s seen the movie Memento, that’s what they’re talking about, anterograde amnesia.

So, here’s kind of a prototypical case. Prior to mussel ingestion, the patient was an entirely self-sufficient small business owner. After supper, he started to get nauseous; up all night vomiting, but then, he started to really deteriorate. Ten days later, he’s in a coma on a ventilator. But then, he recovers. Three months later, he’s back; normal language, judgment, social skills. Didn’t know where he was, or what day it was. In fact, doesn’t remember anything since getting sick, and from then on, was “unable to retain any new information,”—though he could remember everything in his life before that fateful meal.

The toxin targets the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are laid down. Years later when he died, at the autopsy there was complete neuronal loss (nerve loss) in that part of the brain.

This amnesic seafood toxin has been found in tuna, anchovies, mackerel, sole, sardines, halibut. And the diatoms that produce the original toxin that bioaccumulates up the food chain into the fish “appear to be increasing in frequency and toxicity, thereby presenting a continued threat to human health and seafood safety.”

The toxin is heat-stable, so “it is clear that cooking will not increase the safety [of the products contaminated with domoic acid].” It does cross the placenta, can enter the brain tissue, and accumulate in amniotic fluid, so particular concern lies in infants and children that may be exposed.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Serena.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to John A Beal, PhD via Wikimedia Commons, and Jonathan Ehrich and jetheriot via flickr.

A review was published recently on domoic acid, a potent neurotoxin found (extremely rarely) in seafood, that can cause seizures, coma, death; like the paralytic fish toxins, but, most interestingly, causes amnesia, permanent short-term memory loss. If anyone’s seen the movie Memento, that’s what they’re talking about, anterograde amnesia.

So, here’s kind of a prototypical case. Prior to mussel ingestion, the patient was an entirely self-sufficient small business owner. After supper, he started to get nauseous; up all night vomiting, but then, he started to really deteriorate. Ten days later, he’s in a coma on a ventilator. But then, he recovers. Three months later, he’s back; normal language, judgment, social skills. Didn’t know where he was, or what day it was. In fact, doesn’t remember anything since getting sick, and from then on, was “unable to retain any new information,”—though he could remember everything in his life before that fateful meal.

The toxin targets the hippocampus, the part of the brain where memories are laid down. Years later when he died, at the autopsy there was complete neuronal loss (nerve loss) in that part of the brain.

This amnesic seafood toxin has been found in tuna, anchovies, mackerel, sole, sardines, halibut. And the diatoms that produce the original toxin that bioaccumulates up the food chain into the fish “appear to be increasing in frequency and toxicity, thereby presenting a continued threat to human health and seafood safety.”

The toxin is heat-stable, so “it is clear that cooking will not increase the safety [of the products contaminated with domoic acid].” It does cross the placenta, can enter the brain tissue, and accumulate in amniotic fluid, so particular concern lies in infants and children that may be exposed.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Serena.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to John A Beal, PhD via Wikimedia Commons, and Jonathan Ehrich and jetheriot via flickr.

Doctor's Note

This video is about natural toxins that bioaccumulate up the food chain, but the same happens with industrial pollutants. See, for example, Xenoestrogens & Sperm Counts, and Fish Intake Biomarker. Some of the other unusual conditions to strike fish consumers are profiled in Sexually Transmitted Fish ToxinNew Corpse SmellAllergenic Fish WormsFish Fog; and Greasy Orange Rectal Leakage. Also, check out my other videos on fish.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

12 responses to “Amnesic Seafood Poisoning

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  1. This video is about natural toxins that bioaccumulate up the food chain, but the same happens with industrial pollutants. See, for example, Xenoestrogens & Sperm Counts and Fish Intake Biomarker. Some of the other unusual conditions to strike fish consumers are profiled in Sexually Transmitted Fish Toxin, New Corpse Smell, Allergenic Fish Worms, Fish Fog and Greasy Orange Rectal Leakage. There about 50 videos on fish and hundreds on more than a thousand other topics.

    1. All smells a bit fishy to me.  Let’s ask the keeper of Domoic Acid, Mr. Domo himself:  http://www.DomoNation.com. Was it his love for Brain Freeze that he ate the Slurpee again or the Amnestic disorder from being king of Domoic acid.  I don’t think there is Domoic Acid in Slurpee’s is there. 
      (Being serious all the time has led me astray–Enjoy the fun)

  2. However, domoic acid only concentrates in the guts of fish and shellfish, so the muscle tissues of predator fish like tuna should be relatively (and I’ll only say relatively) safe.  We don’t know a lot about the effects of low exposures of domoic acid, only acute exposure.  

    Diagnosed acute exposures only come from blooms, like that in the 80s in maritime Canada, where the case you highlighted occured and over a hundred people were hit from eating contaminated mussels — which are consumed with the guts and all.

    It’s likely because most clinicians don’t know enough about ASP to recognize it, that many cases go undiagnosed every year.  I’m speaking, not as a clinician, but as a person who probably got ASP from eating mussels in 2007, and now live with memory issues (not as bad as you describe, thank God) and epilepsy, but my intellect intact.  

    Another point of interest — it was a bloom resulting in gulls being stricken with domoic acid poisoning when Alfred Hitchcock was a child — disoriented and sick, they fell to the ground and attacked any human that came near — that inspired the movie “The Birds.”  Just last year, a researcher went into tissue archives, and proved that samples taken from the birds sickened in that bloom were suffering from domoic acid poisoning!

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