There is probably no more horrific and frightening incurable disease than Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Also known as the human form of mad cow disease, this degenerative, always fatal brain disorder strikes about one person in every million worldwide each year, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). CJD results in the brain literally being turned into sponge-like, hole-filled tissue (the reason the disease is also known as spongiform encephalopathy). It usually runs a rapid course, causing failing memory, hallucinations, lack of coordination and visual disturbances followed by total mental deterioration, involuntary movements, blindness and coma.
Although some cases are known to be caused by eating meat containing mad cow disease-causing infectious prions, by far the most common form of the illness is known as sporadic CJD. The NINDS says sporadic CJD accounts for at least 85 percent of the cases. Supposedly, sporadic CJD just strikes out of the blue for no particular reason. But Spanish scientists say they’ve found compelling and disturbing evidence that people are infected with the disease during operations.
“Based on the monitoring records of spongiform encephalopathy in two Nordic countries, we studied the possibility of transmission of the sporadic form of CJD through general surgery,” Jesus de Pedro, main author of the study and head of prion monitoring in patients at the National Epidemiology Center of the Carlos III Health Institute in Madrid, said in a statement to the press.
The research team’s study, just published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry, came to this startling conclusion: the sporadic form of CJD strikes after a person has surgery — usually at least 20 years after an operation. The data suggests, Dr. DePedro stated, the disease enters and spreads much more quickly within the central or peripheral nervous system due to surgical procedures.
So what makes this evidence so strong — and why hasn’t anyone noticed a clear surgery/CJD association before now? According to the authors of the new study, the key to finding the surgery and CJD connection was computerized surgery records kept in hospitals in Sweden and Denmark since the early l970s. These records allowed the researchers to see if people who had developed CJD had been surgery patients in past decades. With virtually no exceptions, they had been.
Bottom line: the new findings point to an external and preventable cause for so-called sporadic CJD. It also raises the question about the true causes of other mind robbing maladies. “It may signify a shift in our understanding of the nature of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s,” the research team stated. “We might, therefore, ask ourselves if other types of motor neuron diseases can be transmitted through surgery and be latent for decades, such as those where risk factors, particularly physical professions and activities or certain sporting activities, for example, which are more likely to lead to surgery, have already been indicated.”