Pathogenesis of amoebic encephalitis: Are the amoebae being credited to an ‘inside job’ done by the host immune response?

Document Type



Biological and Biomedical Sciences


Pathogenic free living amoeba like Naegleria fowleri, Acanthamoeba spp., and Balamuthia mandrillaris are known to cause fatal “amoebic meningoencephalitis” by acquiring different route of entries to the brain. The host immune response to these protist pathogens differs from each another, as evidenced by the postmortem gross and microscopic findings from the brains of the affected patients. Cited with the expression of ‘brain eating amoeba’ when the infection is caused by N. fowleri, this expression is making its way into parasitology journals and books. The impression that it imparts is, as if the brain damage is substantially due to the enzymes and toxins produced by this amoeba.

A detailed review of the literature, analysis of archived specimens and with our experimental assays, here we establish that with N. fowleri, Acanthamoeba and Balamuthia spp., the infections result in an extensive brain damage that in fact is substantially caused by the host immune response rather than the amoeba. Due to the comparatively larger sizes of these pathogens and the prior exposure of the amoebal antigen to the human body, the host immune system launches an amplified response that not only breaches the blood brain barrier (BBB), but also becomes the major cause of brain damage in Amoebic meningoencephalitis. It is our understanding that for N. fowleri the host immune response is dominated by acute inflammatory cytokines and that, in cases of Acanthamoeba and Balamuthia spp., it is the type IV hypersensitivity reaction that fundamentally not only contributes to disruption and leakiness of the blood brain barrier (BBB) but also causes the neuronal damage. The further intensification of brain damage is done by toxins and enzymes secreted by the amoeba, which causes the irreversible brain damage.


Acta Tropica