Botulism bacteria creates a type of poisoning and paralysis -- but how does it actually work? Check out this episode of BrainStuff to learn more about the effects and spread of botulism.
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Hi. I’m Lauren, this is BrainStuff, and today’s question is “Why shouldn’t you give honey to babies?” It’s not because bees and babies have an ancient grudge match – probably. It’s because of botulism. Botulism is a condition – a poisoning by the neurotoxin botulinum. It’s named after these bacteria, Clostridium botulinum, that produce the toxin just as a byproduct of existing. In the human body, the toxin attaches to nerve endings that stimulate muscles and block them, preventing them from doing their jobs. This leads to a feeling of weakness, and in severe cases can cause immobilization and even death -- from respiratory paralysis. It’s a less cartoony version of the Joker’s laughing toxin.
These bacteria are pretty common, but lucky for us, they’re killed by oxygen – and, as I’ve mentioned before, there’s a good amount of free-range oxygen in our air. Unfortunately, they’ve adapted to form spores around themselves that let them lie dormant until they find themselves back in an oxygen-free environment.
When adults get botulism, it’s usually from improperly canned food. During the canning process, if the food is heated properly, it’ll destroy the spores. But if it’s heated improperly, the bacteria can activate once the can’s been sealed, creating that oxygen-free environment they grow in. And that’s why you shouldn’t eat food from bloated cans – the bloat comes from rapid bacterial growth that creates a lot of toxin in the food. Side note: Dented cans are fine.
But, OK, we all know that babies are completely incompetent at operating can openers. The thing is, honey frequently contains a few spores of clostridia botulinum – bees accidentally pick them up while they’re collecting nectar. Adults with functioning immune systems and established intestinal flora – that’s the helpful gut bacteria -- can handle a couple spores. But babies can’t. So when the botulinum get into the oxygen-free intestines of the baby, they can activate and poison the baby.
This is all scary. Botulinum is one of the most toxic compounds known to humankind. It can be deadly in the magnitude of nanograms. That’s a billionth of a gram. That’s really small. But it can also be used as a medical treatment. When it’s really diluted, doctors can inject it in patients who have overactive muscle conditions that affect their mobility or eyesight. And hey, you’ve heard of Botox? That’s carefully controlled botulism in your face.
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