Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is a type of prion disease that can cause death. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a prion disease in cows. There is evidence that BSE can spread to humans. This results in vCJD. It is also known as mad cow disease.


It is believed that vCJD is caused by proteins called prions. Prions are normal proteins in the body. These prions may fold up in a way that is not normal. This can change them into the protein that causes the illness. The build up of these prions may be linked to from vCJD.

The Nervous System
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Risk Factors

Variant CJD is more common in younger people. Being around tissue that contains prions may raise your risk. This may happen from:

  • Eating beef from infected cows
  • Receiving a blood transfusion from someone who had the disease


After you are exposed, it can take up to 20 years until you feel sick. Symptoms can follow these three phases:

  • Early phase (0 to 6 months)—mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety , withdrawal, memory problems, and difficulty pronouncing words
  • Middle phase—neurological problems, such as problems with walking and coordination, muscle jerks and stiffness, and a hard time speaking
  • Late phase—inability to talk or move


Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and health history. A physical exam will be done. You may have:

  • Blood tests
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) to record the electrical activity of the brain
  • Lumbar puncture —to test the fluid that protects the brain and spinal cord
  • Brain biopsy
  • Tonsillar biopsy

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In many cases, a finding is not reached until an autopsy is done after death.


There is no cure for vCJD. You will receive support and help easing discomfort.


To lower your chance of getting vCJD, do not eat beef products. Avoid processed meat like sausages and hot dogs and beef items that contain brain, spinal cord, or bone marrow.

Revision Information

  • Reviewer: EBSCO Medical Review Board Rimas Lukas, MD
  • Review Date: 05/2018 -
  • Update Date: 06/25/2018 -