Worms on the brain?-RFK Jr. pins memory loss on peckish parasite

This post originally appeared on Medical News Bulletin.

‘Brain-eating worms’ may sound like something from a David Cronenberg film, but could they have any basis in reality? Following RFK Jr.’s report that a worm ‘ate part of his brain and died’, you may be questioning whether the diet of worms extends to the brains of independent presidential candidates. Let’s separate fact from science fiction. 

Independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has revealed that he suffered from brain fog and short-term memory loss after contracting a brain-eating parasite over a decade ago. The medical anomaly was first brought to the public attention in 2012 during a deposition for his divorce proceedings. Here, RFK Jr. divulged that after a period of mental fog, scans showed a ‘dark spot’, which initially medics believed to be a tumour. However, following a review of the case by an unnamed New York-Presbyterian hospital doctor, the dark spot was reportedly diagnosed as a worm.1

Demystifying Brain Worms

Brain parasites are more common than you think. Though mainly restricted to developing and rural countries, studies have estimated that roughly 2000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized every year with infection.2 The scientific name for brain worms is neurocysticercosis. It is an infection of the central nervous system caused by the pork tapeworm. Humans typically become infected through unsanitary hygiene practices, consumption of undercooked pork or exposure to water contaminated with tapeworm eggs.3

Except how does the worm get there? Isn’t the blood-brain barrier supposed to protect against foreign intruders? Scientists have proposed that parasite larvae may be able to pass through the barrier cells through ‘the Trojan horse’ hypothesis. Here, the worm will gain entry by hitching a ride across the barrier while hiding inside an infected host cell. Parasites have also cleverly evolved methods to avoid being detected by our immune cells.4

But are these worms as ravenous as RFK Jr. describes? Experts believe no. First of all, they don’t have teeth, so you can erase any ideas your mind has conjured up of zombie worms gouging on your brain matter. Instead, worms feed on nutrients in your body. As the worm absorbs more nutrients, it will grow, putting pressure on the surrounding tissues.5 This pressure causes the symptoms associated with brain worms, such as seizures, headaches and dizziness.3

Are we forgetting memory loss?

Memory loss isn’t a common symptom of neurocysticercosis, which experts point out pokes holes in RFK Jr.’s claim. Though not impossible, scientists believe memory loss of that severity is likely caused by another health scare the presidential candidate experienced at the time.

During his 2012 deposition, RFK Jr. also detailed his diagnosis of mercury poisoning. According to RFK Jr., his diet at the time was predominated by predatory fish such as tuna and perch.1 Nutritionists advise that high levels of this metal can be toxic and can lead to severe neurological symptoms.6 Whether caused by brain worms, mercury poisoning or something else entirely, RFK Jr. claims he has made a complete recovery from this forgetful spell.1 

An Unreliable Narrator

Despite RFK Jr.’s insistence that ‘a worm ate my brain’, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between the old excuse of ‘a dog ate my homework’. Experts have expressed concerns that the story doesn’t totally add up. 

Casting further doubt on his credibility is his longtime anti-science stance. The presidential candidate has stirred controversy as a vocal supporter of the anti-vaccine movement, falsely linking childhood vaccines to developmental disorders such as autism.1 It is uncertain where the source of RFK Jr.’s vaccine misinformation stems from, but if it is the same place where he gets his information about brain worms, perhaps his claims are best taken with a grain of salt.

Health scares aside, 70-year-old RFK Jr. has claimed himself as the more ‘athletic’ candidate compared with his presidential rivals, former president Donald Trump, 77, and President Joe Biden, 81. Following the release of the New York Times article, speculation has grown that RFK Jr.’s reported brain worm injury may hinder his ability to serve.1 To this, the independent candidate refuted: ‘I offer to eat five more brain worms and still beat President Trump and President Biden in a debate. I feel confident in the result even with a six-worm handicap.’7

  1. Craig S. R.F.K. Jr. says doctors found a dead worm in his brain. The New York Times. May 8, 2024. Accessed May 18, 2024.
  2. Stockman JA. Burden of seasonal influenza hospitalization in children, United States, 2003 to 2008. Yearbook of Pediatrics. 2012;2012:261-263. doi:10.1016/j.yped.2011.04.032
  3. Neurocysticercosis is a preventable parasitic infection. World Health Organization. Accessed May 18, 2024.
  4. Chulanetra M., Chaicumpa W. Revisiting the mechanisms of immune evasion employed by human parasites. Frontiers in Cellular and Infection Microbiology. 2021;11. doi:10.3389/fcimb.2021.702125
  5. RFK Jr. says a parasite ate part of his brain. do parasites actually “eat” human tissue? and how do they end up in the brain? Northeastern Global News. May 14, 2024. Accessed May 18, 2024.,is%20something%20of%20a%20misnomer.
  6. Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury. EPA. Accessed May 18, 2024.
  7. Kennedy R. X (formerly Twitter). Accessed May 18, 2024.

This post originally appeared on Medical News Bulletin.