This is the million dollar question for those suffering from Lyme Brain: is damage temporary or permanent? The experience of having brain fog, memory loss, difficulty finding words and putting sentences together can be terrifying, frustrating and demoralizing all at once. In keeping with our series of excerpts from my upcoming book, Lyme Brain, I will post today on this exact topic. In fact, each Wednesday from now until the book is published in a couple of months, I’ll continue to share snippets with you! Don’t forget to sign up at www.lymebrainbook.com to be notified when the book is released.
Lyme Brain: Is Damage Temporary or Permanent?
This is the question on everyone’s mind. Of course, when you’re experiencing memory loss, you can’t focus well enough to continue working at your job. You can’t read a full page of a book without having to take breaks, and your mind generally doesn’t function well enough to carry out what you need to do in your life. The terrifying part is not knowing whether it’s going to last forever or if, indeed, there is hope of recovery. That is very natural and understandable.
I have some bad news, but I have much good news as well.
Yes, there are some cases where there appears to be permanent damage. When the brain has been under toxic and infectious assault for many years unchecked, there may be some permanent damage. Some people find that they never get back to the full capacity of their mind as they knew it previously or there may be a residual psychoemotional impact. This may be due to the effects of long-term inflammation such as tissue damage, hypoperfusion (low blood supply) leading to low oxygenation and tissue injury, impacts of toxic insults (including such things as heavy metals) and residual infections such as Candida and viruses that may impact the brain even beyond Lyme treatment. It is hard to say to what extent ongoing brain symptoms are due to actual irreversible damage, versus the chronicity of Lyme infection itself, or ongoing cofactors such as Candida, mold and other toxins.
But let’s move on to the good news. I find that the majority of people with Lyme Brain can find resolution or, at the very least, significant improvement of their symptoms. Remember Nikki from the introduction—from forgetting where she was driving to, to writing her Ph.D. dissertation? That’s quite the recovery, and I see those kinds of recoveries frequently.
If we go back to the root causes of Lyme Brain—infection, inflammation, neurotoxins and neurotransmitters—each of those things can be addressed. I will expand more in the next section, but in broad terms, there are antimicrobials that cross the blood-brain barrier to kill off the pathogens in the brain; there are treatments that reduce the inflammatory response and dietary principles that help, too; there are detox therapies to help rid the body of toxins; and there are various ways to support neurotransmitters to help balance those out. I’m not saying it’s quick or easy, but I have seen remarkable improvements and recoveries in people who started out very, very ill with horrible Lyme Brain and are now back at work, running their families and living their lives as productive, happy people.
There are also some old assumptions about the loss of neurons in the brain that are being debunked by scientific research right now, and that’s even more good news.
We discussed earlier that Lyme could cause neuronal cell death. Historically, it was believed that neurons (cells in the nervous system) once dead could not regenerate, that we are born with a certain number of neurons and once they are gone, that’s it, they’re gone forever. That would be bad news for a Lyme patient with neurological Lyme, as cell damage from the infectious process would be unrecoverable.
Excitingly, there are two significant findings now that are challenging that old theory. The first is that adults can grow new neurons. Researchers at Princeton University have found that new neurons are constantly being added to monkeys’ brains—mostly in the cerebral cortex, which is the largest and most advanced part of the brain. Within the cerebral cortex, the researchers found neurogenesis in three areas: 1) the prefrontal region, which controls executive decision making and short-term memory; 2) the inferior temporal region, which plays a crucial role in the visual recognition of objects and faces; and 3) the posterior parietal region, which is important for the representation of objects in space. Much research still needs to be done, but this might provide incredible opportunities for therapy in degenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, as well as neurological infectious illnesses such as Lyme disease. Just knowing that the brain has that capacity and that it could be happening in your brain right now is encouraging!
The second is the area of neuroplasticity. I won’t go into too much detail here because I will discuss it more later. Basically, neuroplasticity is the concept that the brain is changeable and malleable, and can respond to changes in behavior, external stimuli, environment and injury if need be. It is a fascinating area of study, and if you are interested in it, I highly recommend the book The Brain That Changes Itself. There is evidence that if certain parts of the brain are damaged, other areas of the brain can take over the function previously performed by the injured part of the brain. This is especially important in situations such as strokes, where a focal, specific area of the brain is damaged, but is also relevant for Lyme patients where damage tends to be more diffuse.
I also think that neuroplasticity has major application for one’s mental outlook and attitude towards their illness. The more a person chooses a certain thought or thought pattern, the stronger the neurological pathways for that thought pattern become. Therefore, if a person continually chooses thoughts of healing and recovery, they are actually supporting their brain in creating healing and recovery, and weakening the thoughts that are negative and hopeless. More on this later, but to me, this is a very profound concept and could make a world of difference in one’s recovery from Lyme Brain.
Finally, there are also certain agents—herbs, supplements, etc.—that can help relieve Lyme Brain symptoms while the underlying causes are being addressed. Obviously, dealing with the root cause—the infection—is going to bring the lasting recovery that patients desire, but there’s nothing wrong with helping with some of the symptoms and giving the brain a little boost while that process is taking place. These will also be discussed in Section 3.
 Gould, E, A J Reeves, M S Graziano, and C G Gross. “Neurogenesis in the Neocortex of Adult Primates.” Science 286 (October 1999).
 Doidge, N. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.