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Upstate study finds Lyme disease alters tick behavior

A new study of tick behavior by the SUNY Center for Vector-Borne Diseases at Upstate Medical University shows that ticks infected with pathogens carrying Lyme disease prefer to bite humans in different areas than uninfected ticks.

According to the paper, “Human attachment site preferences of ticks parasitizing in New York,” published in Nature.com’s Scientific Reports Journal, the location of tick attachment is of clinical importance because it can allow for ticks to be rapidly discovered and removed, curtailing their ability to transmit pathogens.

The research team, led by Saravanan Thangamani, found that the infected ticks preferred the chest area (19.89 compared to 15.81 percent for uninfected), the midsection (14.85 percent to 12.90 percent) and the groin and upper thigh (28.91 percent to 25.41 percent.)

“This means that the infected tick’s behavior is altered when they start crawling on us to find a particular place to feed,” said Thangamani, a professor of microbiology and immunology director of the SUNY Center for Vector-Borne Diseases.

The information is helpful for both the general public and clinicians.

“It allows the general public to know where the ticks could potentially attach, so they can check for ticks in that specific area,” Thangamani said. “Also, when a person goes to a health care provider, the clinician can look for signs of tick bites and reaction in those areas.”

The study was done with data from 2020 from the Citizen Science Tick Testing program started by Thangamani at Upstate in 2019. The surveillance program relies on the general public to become citizen scientists and submit to the lab ticks they find on themselves, on their pets or in their yards. The project helps the lab track tick hot spots and the prevalence of tick-borne diseases across the state. Though about 6,000 ticks were submitted that year, only those found on humans could be used in this study, which includes data from 1,700 ticks.

The three main ticks found in New York are the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), the dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis) and the Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum), which each can carry different disease-causing agents.

The different species also prefer different areas of the body.

The Lone Star tick prefers to bite the head and neck, the dog tick prefers the thighs, groin, and abdomen. Deer tick were found across the body, although it showed a significant life stage difference with adults preferring the head, midsection, and groin, while nymphs/larvae preferred the extremities.

The lab has collected about 30,000 ticks to date and will continue its statistical analysis on the rest of the samples.

“Now our data will be even more robust,” Thanganami said. “The more data points you have the more robust your findings are. Maybe we will find something different or confirm what we have already found, but the statistical analysis will be even stronger.”

The study is a collaboration of researchers from Thangamani’s lab, The Institute for Global Health and Translational Sciences, Department of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Department of Family Medicine and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. Additional authors Charles Hart, Laura A. Schad, Jahnavi Reddy Bhaskar, Erin S. Reynolds and Christopher P. Morley.

To submit ticks and accompanying information to https://nyticks.org.