Prion diseases are a group of rare conditions that lead to brain damage.
Also known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), prion diseases affect both humans and animals. A prion is a type of protein that causes normal proteins in the brain to abnormally fold. This results in brain damage.
With only about 300 cases in the United States each year, prion diseases are considered to be rare. In most cases, these conditions are fatal.
The types of prion diseases in humans include:
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CDJ) – rapidly progressive disease that affects the neurological system that is always fatal
Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) – caused by the same agent that causes “mad cow disease,” this is a disorder that affects the brain and is always fatal
Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker syndrome – very rare brain condition that runs in families, affects individuals between the ages of 20 and 60 years old and is always fatal
Fatal familial insomnia – rare disorder that is passed down in families and interferes with an individual’s sleep, which leads to the breakdown of brain function and loss of coordination
Kuru – very rare brain condition found among the people of New Guinea who ate the brains of the deceased as part of their funeral rites
Prion diseases develop when normal prion protein – which is naturally found on the outside of many cells of the body – becomes abnormal and gathers in the brain.
Factors that can increase a child’s risk of contracting a prion disease include:
Eating meat infected with “mad cow disease” (disease passed from cows to humans that affects the brain and spinal cord)
Family history of prion disease
Infection from contaminated medical equipment or having received a transplanted, contaminated cornea
Signs and symptoms of prion diseases are:
Sudden personality changes
Trouble walking and changes in walking pattern (gait)