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Brain & Nervous System Health Center

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Building a Better 'Mad Cow' Test

WebMD Health News

Feb. 28, 2001 -- A new round of mad cow panic is sweeping Europe -- but if a promising new blood test pans out, doctors may soon have a simple way of screening both humans and animals for the presence of the fatal brain-wasting disorder unofficially known as mad cow disease. Such a test, experts tell WebMD, could go a long way toward calming people down.

At present, though, thousands of animals are being slaughtered and disposed of each day, and billions of marks, pounds, and francs are being spent in an effort to check the spread of tainted meat that causes the human form of the disease.

Beef consumption has fallen by 50% in some European nations in recent months, as stricter testing revealed contaminated cattle in a growing number of countries. Last month, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was pelted with rocks by angry cattlemen, and Spanish farmers barricaded slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants for three days to protest plummeting meat prices.

Cows infected with prions, the infectious agents believed to cause mad cow disease, develop a brain disease called bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). Although the condition was first identified in Great Britain during the mid-1980s, it took another decade for the first cases of a brain disease similar to BSE to be reported in humans.

These people contracted the human form of the disorder, known as variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). This fatal illness usually begins with psychiatric symptoms, such as depression and anxiety, and progresses to complete incapacitation and death. Consumption of BSE-contaminated beef is now blamed for close to 100 deaths in the U.K.

BSE and vCJD are among a group of fatal neurodegenerative diseases collectively known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies.

"The new realization that this is not just a disease of British cattle has resulted in a frenzy of press attention and finger pointing throughout Europe," says Swiss researcher Adriano Aguzzi, MD, of the University of Zurich. "Government officials have been forced from office, and now everyone is demanding a better diagnostic test."

That demand is closer to being answered with the recent identification of a molecular footprint for the disease that could theoretically be detected in both animals and humans by using a simple blood test. The current method of testing cattle requires they be slaughtered and their brains physically inspected. People are a little better off, but confirming infection with vCJD generally still requires a painful tonsil biopsy.

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