Eating Squirrel Brains May Have Killed a Man After Contracting Mad Cow-Like Disease

   10.18.18

Again, this sounds like the making of a scary Halloween movie, but it’s just another bizarre story that couldn’t have surfaced at a more appropriate time. . . A recently-uncovered medical case from 2015 may show that a man died after contracting a rare brain disease from eating squirrel brains. This would be the first instance in which the disorder was ever contracted in the United States.

The extremely rare brain disease – known as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease – is caused by misfolding brain proteins called prions. When these proteins start to misfold, they cause a sort-of domino effect causing other nearby prions in the brain to misfold as well. This results in severe memory loss, dementia, psychosis, loss of coordination, and eventually death.

These zombie-like prions can also withstand radiation and chemicals such as formaldehyde!

The disease is contagious, however it’s a lot more complicated than contracting a cold from your sneezing co-worker. See, the prions cannot be spread through mucus or saliva, rather the most common way to get CJD from somebody else. . . is to eat them.

Obviously, CJD isn’t a common disease like the flu.

The last major epidemic involving the disease was recorded back in the 1950s when a remote tribe – the Fore people of Papua New Guinea – practiced a form of ritualistic cannibalism. Separately, an even rarer form of CJD, called ‘variant CJD,’ plagued the U.K. back in the 80s and 90s when people were unknowingly eating beef from cows who were infected with the bovine strain, more commonly known as mad cow disease.

The case from 2015 shows a 61-year-old man from Rochester, New York was admitted into a hospital after suffering chronic memory loss, deteriorating mental faculties, and muscle problems: all of which are symptoms of vCJD. Once the man’s brain scan results came back, researchers’ suspicions were confirmed, as the MRI results looked a lot like the other victims of vCJD.

So the question quickly became: How the heck did this man contract a rare disease such as vCJD in the first place?

The answer apparently revealed itself in his hunting habits. The man apparently loved squirrel hunting, and according to the report has ate squirrel brains at least once before. Therein lies the answer. At least potentially, as it’s possible the man ate the brain of at least one squirrel with a prion disease, leaving him infected. Of course, no one ate that man’s brains, so there’s no risk of him spreading the disease further.

However, this means that hunters – namely squirrel connoisseurs – could possibly be more at risk for CJD than previously believed.

I know, pretty dreary news. But on the bright side, you can avoid CJD by just not eating squirrel brains.

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