Did a Worm Really Eat RFK, Jr.’s Brain?

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I have very serious, breaking news to report: US presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has brainworms.

Well, “had.”

“Brainworm.” Singular.

But I am NOT being sarcastic, for once: RFK, Jr. literally said that a worm got into his brain somehow, took a big old bite out of it, and then died. According to the New York Times, in a deposition during his divorce proceedings, he volunteered that a doctor had informed him in 2010 that he “had a dead parasite in his head.

“The doctor believed that the abnormality seen on his scans “was caused by a worm that got into my brain and ate a portion of it and then died,” Mr. Kennedy said in the deposition.”

Look, I’ll be honest with you about a number of embarrassing things: first, that I laughed really, really hard at this for a really long time. I needed several hours to recover before I could even begin writing this video.

Second, “he has brainworms” has become such an apt epithet for people like RFK, Jr. that for a moment my first thought was, “Wait, brainworms are real?”

And then I remembered yes, of course there are parasites that can and do infect the brain. But in that same deposition, RFK, Jr. claimed that at the same time of the discovery of the deceased brainworm, he also was suffering from mercury poisoning. I have to admit that this immediately triggered my Bullshit Detector: RFK, Jr. has spent decades claiming that mercury in vaccines are responsible for causing irreparable harm in children, a claim that is absolutely untrue. What are the odds that he actually was harmed by that same element, at the very same time that a dead worm was rotting in his noggin?

So. I finished my lunch and then started researching, and you’ll never believe it but I’m pretty sure RFK, Jr. is fucking lying about SOMETHING.

Also, this incredibly stupid and hilarious news story has led to me learning something important about my own health, and for that I have to suck it up and say “Thanks, RFK, Jr.” 

Yuck. I need to take a shower.

Okay so yes, parasitic worms can and do infect the brain. The one I thought of first, despite not being particularly “wormy,” was the “brain-eating amoeba,” aka Naegleria fowleri. That microscopic jerk is the reason why you should always boil tap water before you put it in a neti pot to clear out your sinuses: drinking him won’t hurt you but if you shoot him up your nose, he’ll head straight to your brain and begin chowing down like it’s an all-you-can-eat grey buffet.

But RFK, Jr. didn’t have N. fowleri, which I know because he’s still alive. The infection it causes is incredibly rare, but also extremely fatal: in the 50 years before RFK, Jr.’s infection, 128 people in the US had caught it and only two survived.

So I wanted to know what other worms can get in our brains, and I was surprised to discover that by far the most common in the Western world is, believe it or not, Taenia solium, the same parasite you can get from eating undercooked pork. That’s right, the humble tapeworm! Not just a budget Ozempic.

The pork tapeworm is well-known for infecting the small intestine, but it turns out that it can infect any soft tissue in your body and is particularly fond of the eyes and brain. When it does make its way to the brain, its cysts cause neurocysticercosis, which can lead to seizures, headaches, brain lesions, dementia, or even death. In fact, according to the CDC, the pork tapeworm is the number one cause of adult onset epilepsy in the world!

Despite how relatively common it is, it’s pretty rare in places with stricter food standards like the US. But RFK, Jr. says he may have picked it up during a trip in South Asia. That’s certainly possible, but what’s not possible is his claim that the parasite, “ate a portion of” his brain. Unlike the brain-eating amoeba, the pork tapeworm absorbs nutrients from its surroundings, which is why the ones that end up in the brain are usually much tinier than their greedy cousins in the intestine.

So unfortunately, while it is VERY funny that RFK, Jr. says a worm literally ate his brain, it’s just not true. Really pains me to fact check that one.

Might some other worm have eaten his brain? As far as my research could turn up, the only other options are other forms of tapeworms that operate the same as the pork tapeworm and parasitic flatworms known as “flukes,” which cause “swimmer’s itch” but can also get into the brain. The problem isn’t from them eating the brain, though. As with tapeworms, it’s from the inflammation and tissue development your brain undergoes to protect itself from a foreign intruder.

Oh, and before I move on, I need to mention that I looked this up just in case: the treatment for having any worm in your brain is not, in fact, ivermectin. Sorry. Another good joke goes down the drain.

Finally, I want to talk about the mercury poisoning claim. Is it possible that RFK, Jr. had it?

This may surprise you, but the answer is absolutely yes! I mean, it’s possible, sure. Lots of things are possible, even if extremely rare. Bobby says he was eating loads and loads of tuna at the time, and tuna IS an apex predator. Mercury is lurking in all fish, and it accumulates as little fish are eaten by bigger fish, and then even bigger fish eat THOSE fish, and eventually the big guys like tunas eat them and end up with giant doses of mercury. That’s why the FDA offers advice that we should avoid those apex predators: tuna, swordfish, sharks, and marlins are all on the “avoid” list, while the little guys like anchovies can safely be eaten two to three times a week.

Oh, but not for most people. Just for people who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or children. They base their recommendations on these populations because the mercury we get from fish is only really dangerous for tiny developing brains, unless you are consuming absolute batshit amounts of apex fish. In kids, elevated mercury levels can lead to serious cognition problems, plus a host of other bad things like kidney problems. In adults, though, it has a much subtler effect. Depending on how much mercury an adult consumes, they may experience muscle weakness, tingling, and problems with cognition like memory loss. But at low levels, even levels that exceed the FDA’s recommendation (which, again, is based upon what’s safe for fetuses and children), the data showing harm is mixed.

For instance, a study of 920 young adults in Japan compared mercury levels in their hair with neurobehavioral performance and brain structure, and found “that greater hair mercury levels were weakly but significantly associated with diminished cognitive performance.”

Was that due to the mercury they were currently ingesting, or did the young adults with more mercury also tend to ingest more mercury as younger kids, and that’s why it was such a weak correlation? Maybe that result was just the remnant of high-mercury kids growing up and changing their habits or moving around, diluting the effect.

Because in a study years earlier, another group of researchers examined the mercury levels in the blood of 474 older patients in Baltimore, Maryland, and looked to see how they matched up with their scores on twelve cognitive ability tests. The only significant results they found was that elevated mercury levels were correlated with poorer performance on one test of visual memory, but that they were also correlated with BETTER performance on tests of motor speed, eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity. “Overall,” they wrote, “the data do not provide strong evidence that blood mercury levels are associated with worse neurobehavioral performance in this population of older urban adults.”

That doesn’t mean that mercury is fine for adults to consume in any quantity. It may be that some people are more affected than others, and/or that the negative effects may be subtle and difficult to identify in large studies. The research is overwhelming that very large doses of mercury in adults can cause damage, but that’s extremely rare in the United States because it most often happens when workers are exposed doing jobs like mining gold, or when industries dump large amounts of mercury into communities, as happened in Minamata, Japan, when a chemical company spent decades poisoning the ocean with their mercury waste, leading to tens of thousands of injuries and about 5,000 people killed.

But RFK, Jr. had “mercury poisoning” from eating too much tuna. Okay, sure. He says he had levels “ten times” the FDA recommendation, which again is for fetuses and children only, and that it led to severe cognitive problems. I mean, maybe? Maybe this poor man, in a span of just a year or so, had a worm eat part of his brain and die, got mercury poisoning, and also went through a contentious divorce in which his soon-to-be-ex-wife wanted to get all of his money, which was now down to a mere pittance because of the aforementioned brain worms and mercury poisoning. Oh, that’s how it all came up, by the way: the deposition RFK, Jr. gave was in his divorce from his second wife, Mary Richardson, and he was listing his cognitive problems because he claimed that they impacted his earnings, so he couldn’t pay the spousal support that she wanted. Weird that it was a huge problem back then, but now that Richardson is dead (she killed herself before the divorce was finalized) and poor cognitive ability would hurt rather than help Bobby’s financial future in a run for the presidency, the mercury poisoning is gone and the part of the brain that the worm ate has grown back and according to his spokesperson he is just fine. Just fine! Thanks for asking!

So no, I don’t actually buy much of it. I think he may have had a dead worm in his brain, sure, and I also think that he was obsessed with mercury and so he went to his doctor and got bloodwork done, found that his levels were “elevated,” and used that as a nifty excuse to try to pay Richardson less money. Just a guess on my part, though.

I mentioned, though, that I learned something about my own health. Well, I’ve been trying to increase my protein intake over the past six months or so in order to increase muscle, and as a pescetarian who mostly eats vegetarian, the easiest way to do that was to increase the amount of canned tuna I was eating. “Light” tuna in cans is usually skipjack, which is a small tuna with a comparatively small amount of mercury (which is why it’s on the FDA’s “ok for fetuses” list). But the last time my partner came home from the grocery store, he had a different brand, and it was albacore. I didn’t think there was any difference, but there is: albacore is a much larger tuna, with potentially more mercury in it. I’ve been eating it for lunch quite a bit – like 5 times a week.

Is that bad? Eh, maybe? I’m not worried I have mercury poisoning, but at the end of the day mercury isn’t good for me. So I’m going to help out myself and the environment (since eating an apex predator is never the sustainable choice) and switch back to the light stuff, while also doing an extra few minutes of work and making lunches with stuff like lentils. Foodies in the audience, help me out and post your favorite high-protein veggie lunches in the comments! And children and fetuses in the audience, skip the tuna and hit the anchovies! All the Omega-3s, very little of the mercury.

Hold on, fetuses, get off this channel! You’re going to get me demonetized, dammit.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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