Shocking Discovery: vCJD Linked to Squirrel Brains in New York

In a shocking medical revelation, doctors in Upstate New York encountered a perplexing case of a 61-year-old patient suffering from an extremely rare brain disease. The medical professionals suspect that the patient’s affliction might have resulted from an unusual source: eating squirrel brains.

A red squirrel in the forest.
red squirrel in the forest. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Unraveling the Mysterious Case

The patient was admitted to a hospital in Rochester, New York, displaying bizarre symptoms, including a decline in cognitive abilities and a detachment from reality. Furthermore, he reportedly lost his ability to walk, adding to the perplexity of the situation.

To investigate further, doctors conducted an MRI scan, which led to an unexpected finding. The patient’s brain scan bore similarities to those typically seen in individuals affected by variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a fatal brain condition caused by infectious prions.

The Rarity of vCJD

vCJD is an exceptionally rare condition, with only a few hundred reported cases worldwide. Some may recall its association with the consumption of contaminated beef during the “mad cow disease” outbreaks in England during the 1980s and 1990s.

However, what sets this particular case apart is the patient’s dietary habits. The man’s family revealed that he enjoyed hunting and consumed various animals he killed, including squirrel brains, as disclosed by Dr. Tara Chen, a medical resident at Rochester Regional Health and lead author of the report.

Uncovering the Connection

 loss of brain tissue
Over time, MRI images reveal the progressive loss of brain tissue caused by CJD. Source: National Library of Medicine

Dr. Chen came across this peculiar case while researching a report on Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) cases from her hospital over the past five years. Her presentation, titled “Towards Earlier Diagnosis of Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies (TSEs): A Case Series, Including One Associated with Squirrel Brain Consumption,” occurred at a conference dedicated to various infectious diseases on Oct. 4.

Investigating an Unusual Cluster

The rarity of CJD prompted doctors at Rochester Regional Health to delve deeper into the matter when they encountered four suspected cases of CJD within a six-month period between November 2017 and April 2018. This atypical pattern led them to the case of the patient who had consumed squirrel brains. However, the diagnosis of vCJD remains unconfirmed, as a conclusive determination can only be made post-mortem during an autopsy.

The Importance of Swift Diagnosis

While the patient who consumed squirrel brains has passed away, Dr. Chen and her team are diligently trying to access his medical records to ascertain if vCJD was indeed confirmed in the autopsy. This discovery would be remarkable, as there have only been four other confirmed cases of vCJD in the United States.

Dr. Chen’s report underscores the significance of diagnosing CJD promptly. Due to its rarity, physicians may not immediately consider CJD when examining a patient, potentially leading to delayed diagnosis. Swift identification is vital for both the patient’s survival and the safety of those in contact with them, as the infectious prions can contaminate medical equipment.


The baffling case of a patient suffering from vCJD, potentially due to the consumption of squirrel brains, serves as a reminder of the importance of vigilance in medical diagnosis. Dr. Tara Chen’s research highlights the need for increased awareness of CJD and the adoption of necessary precautions when dealing with suspected cases.

What is vCJD?

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) is a rare, fatal brain condition caused by infectious prions. It was previously linked to the consumption of contaminated beef during the “mad cow disease” outbreaks.

How rare is vCJD?

vCJD is an exceptionally rare disease, with only a few hundred reported cases worldwide.

How did the patient contract vCJD?

The patient’s family revealed that he enjoyed hunting and consumed various animals he killed, including squirrel brains, which is believed to be the potential source of infection.

Why is swift diagnosis crucial in CJD cases?

Swift diagnosis of CJD is vital for the patient’s survival and to prevent the spread of infectious prions that can contaminate medical equipment and affect other patients.

How many confirmed cases of vCJD are there in the United States?

Before this case, there have only been four other confirmed cases of vCJD in the United States.

64 thoughts on “Shocking Discovery: vCJD Linked to Squirrel Brains in New York”

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