A 61-year-old who experienced a severe cognitive decline before his death may have had squirrel brains to blame. A new report on the 2015 death in Rochester, New York, finds that he may have suffered from variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD), a rare brain condition you've likely heard of as "mad cow disease." That's what it's called when it's tied to consumption of contaminated beef, but in this case, doctors suspect a different culprit. The man was a hunter, and it was reported that he had eaten squirrel brains, though it's not clear whether he ate an entire brain or just squirrel meat contaminated with brains. He was brought to the hospital after losing touch with reality and losing the ability to walk on his own, LiveScience reports. An MRI found that his brain scan looked similar to those seen in vCJD sufferers.
Dr. Tara Chen, a medical resident at Rochester Regional Health, came across the case while writing a report on suspected cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease at the hospital over the past five years; she presented her findings this month. There are three forms of CJD, and just one form (which includes vCJD) is caused by exposure to infected brain or nervous system tissue. Infectious proteins, called prions, fold abnormally and cause lesions in the brain; there is no treatment or cure. Only a few hundred cases of vCJD have ever been reported, most of them in the UK; just four cases have ever been confirmed in the US. So far, the hunter's death is only considered a "probable" case of vCJD. It can only be confirmed after death, and doctors are waiting on medical records to see if an autopsy tested his brain tissue to confirm the diagnosis. (There have been alarming findings related to CJD in humans—and a possible connection to deer.)