, Volume 59, Issue 5, pp 845-858

Sleeping sickness and the brain

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Recent progress in understanding the neuro-pathological mechanisms of sleeping sickness reveals a complex relationship between the trypanosome parasite that causes this disease and the host nervous system. The pathology of late-stage sleeping sickness, in which the central nervous system is involved, is complicated and is associated with disturbances in the circadian rhythm of sleep. The blood-brain barrier, which separates circulating blood from the central nervous system, regulates the flow of materials to and from the brain. During the course of disease, the integrity of the blood-brain barrier is compromised. Dysfunction of the nervous system may be exacerbated by factors of trypanosomal origin or by host responses to parasites. Microscopic examination of cerebrospinal fluid remains the best way to confirm late-stage sleeping sickness, but this necessitates a risky lumbar puncture. Most drugs, including many trypanocides, do not cross the blood-brain barrier efficiently. Improved diagnostic and therapeutic approaches are thus urgently required. The latter might benefit from approaches which manipulate the blood-brain barrier to enhance permeability or to limit drug efflux. This review summarizes our current understanding of the neurological aspects of sleeping sickness, and envisages new research into blood-brain barrier models that are necessary to understand the interactions between trypanosomes and drugs active against them within the host nervous system.