Researchers say Morgellons disease is associated with Lyme disease, and the colorful filaments protruding from the skin are comprised of keratin and collagen.
Morgellons disease has been a puzzle to practitioners for many years. Sufferers exhibit colorful filaments that protrude from their skin or nestle directly underneath it, resembling textile fibers in their texture and hue. Frequently, this unusual presentation led physicians to doubt that the filaments could originate from inside the skin and sufferers were traditionally thought to be delusional. Now, researchers associated with the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS) have examined the results of several recent studies and concluded that not only do Morgellons filaments originate inside the skin, but the disorder is also closely linked to Lyme disease.
According to Raphael B. Stricker, MD, a San Francisco physician and ILADS member, histological studies demonstrate that the filaments are comprised of keratin and collagen, proteins found in body tissues. These proteins appear to arise from cells located in multiple layers of the skin along with those of hair follicle roots; some of the fibers are actual hairs. Staining the different colored filaments has revealed them to be human tissue and dispelled any notion that the fibers contain materials normally found in clothing or other substances.
Dr. Stricker says that in multiple studies, tissues taken from Morgellons patients consistently show infection with various kinds of Borrelia spirochetes—mainly Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria that’s present in Lyme disease. “As many as 98% of Morgellons patients have evidence of Lyme disease and/or an associated tick-borne infection,” says Dr. Stricker. In fact, Morgellons sufferers commonly experience joint pain, fatigue, and neuropathy, all known symptoms of Lyme disease. Most Lyme sufferers, however, never develop Morgellons: two studies have put that figure at only about 6%.
Why do a handful of people who contract Lyme go on to develop Morgellons? Scientists aren’t sure. “Possibly [it has to do with] the strain of the Lyme spirochete, and probably some genetic factors," said Dr. Stricker. There also may be hormonal and immune system factors at play. Most Lyme disease patients who develop Morgellons have been infected with Lyme for some time and are experiencing symptoms indicating a chronic form of the disease, although certain Morgellons patients develop their fibrous extrusions and other symptoms shortly after being bitten by a tick and/or experiencing the typical bullseye rash that may arise within a few days or weeks from such a bite.
Dr. Stricker also notes that Morgellons sufferers often do have psychiatric symptoms, including prior diagnoses of bipolar disorder, ADD, OCD, and schizophrenia. This complicating factor can make it difficult for a Morgellons patient to have his or her symptoms taken seriously. However, he notes in his report that hundreds of peer-reviewed articles have found a connection between Lyme disease and similar tick-borne conditions and mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, hallucinations, and paranoia. It’s possible, then, that even if a person is experiencing psychiatric problems as a result of a tick-borne bacterial infection, the “delusion” that fibers are growing out of his or her skin is, in fact, not a delusion at all.
Laurie Saloman, MS, is a health writer with more than 20 years of experience working for both consumer and physician-focused publications. She is a graduate of Brandeis University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. She lives in New Jersey with her family.