How Do I Recognize the Symptoms of Mad Cow Disease?

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  • Written By: Clara Kedrek
  • Edited By: Jessica Seminara
  • Last Modified Date: 16 October 2018
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Mad cow disease, also known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (vCJD), can be difficult to recognize. This degenerative neurological disorder is caused by the ingestion of meat that has been contaminated with an agent called a prion, which is an abnormal protein. Symptoms of mad cow disease often start with psychiatric problems. Later, problems with cognitive abilities and neurological function emerge. The symptoms unfortunately typically progress and cause death in patients after approximately one year.

One reason the symptoms of mad cow disease can be difficult to identify is that they can appear in patients many years after consuming the contaminated meat product. It is possible that a patient will not have symptoms for years or decades after initial exposure to the prion. Additionally, some of the first symptoms of mad cow disease are often nonspecific, and patients might receive other diagnoses before being identified as having this condition.

The first symptoms of mad cow disease are often psychiatric problems. Depression is the most common initial symptom of this degenerative disease, and patients may report sadness, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, guilt, and decreased energy. Some patients experience symptoms of psychosis, and might have visual or auditory hallucinations or become paranoid about various aspects of their lives. Other psychiatric symptoms can include anxiety, insomnia, and apathy.


Some of the next symptoms of mad cow disease that can be seen in affected patients involve problems with cognitive function, or the ability to think properly. Patients might experience a sudden onset of memory loss or dementia. Sometimes these symptoms can be difficult to differentiate from more common syndromes that cause dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. To distinguish between the two, doctors have to take into account how fast the symptoms evolve, and how old the affected patient is. A rapid onset of memory loss in a young patient would be more consistent with vCJD, whereas a slow onset of dementia in an older patient would much more likely be Alzheimer’s disease.

The progression of the disease typically continues to involve other elements of the nervous system. Disease in the part of the brain and spinal cord that regulates motion could result in symptoms such as involuntary movements or muscular paralysis. Activity of this disease in the cerebellum can lead to problems with balance and maintaining a steady walking pattern. The cranial nerves, which are the nerves that are important for the sensation and movement of the face, can be affected and result in symptoms such as limited eye mobility, problems with swallowing, and slurred speech.

Symptoms of mad cow disease often progress quickly and result in death approximately a year after they start. Patients might pass away after the muscles responsible for breathing no longer work properly. Other causes of death can include infection or failure of the cardiovascular system.



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