Mad Cow Disease
Contrary to popular belief, people don’t get the “mad cow disease” or bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease found in cows. Instead, the prion (a type of protein) which causes the disease in cows is the same one responsible in causing variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vJCD), a fatal disease that affects the brain and nerves in humans.
Last Updated: September 27, 2023

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is caused by a protein called a prion from a cow with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or “mad cow disease. It is transmitted to humans by eating contaminated meat and meat products.

Patients with the disease usually displayed primarily psychiatric symptoms, which include: • Insomnia • Depression • Confusion • Personality changes • Forgetfulness In addition, some minority of individuals experience delusions and hallucinations. Sensory problems can also be seen, which include numbness and tingling of the face, hands, feet, and legs. As the disease worsens, individuals can have involuntary movements, and have difficulties balancing, talking, or moving in general.

In order to diagnose vCJD, doctors can test one’s urine or get a sample of one’s tonsils to look for the specific prion causing the disease. A magnetic resonance imaging can also be done to look for changes in the brain consistent with vCJD. Currently, there is still no effective treatment available.

To reduce any risk of acquiring vCJD from food, especially if you are in an area with known cases of BSE, it is best to either avoid beef and beef products, or just eat beef or beef products, such as solid pieces of muscle meat (rather than brains or beef products like burgers and sausages). However, the best way of preventing vCJD is still preventing bovine spongiform encephalopathy in cows, so they don’t get to infect humans in the first place.
Last Updated: September 27, 2023