PRESS RELEASE

A nasal brush test can rapidly and accurately diagnose Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), an incurable and ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disorder, according to a study by National Institutes of Health (NIH) scientists and their Italian colleagues.

Up to now, a definitive CJD diagnosis required testing brain tissue obtained after death or by biopsy in living patients. The study describing the less invasive nasal test appears in the Aug. 7 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Image/CDC
Image/CDC

CJD is a prion disease. These diseases originate when, for reasons not fully understood, normally harmless prion protein molecules become abnormal and gather in clusters. Prion diseases affect animals and people. Human prion diseases include variant, familial and sporadic CJD. The most common form, sporadic CJD, affects an estimated 1 in one million people annually worldwide. Other prion diseases include scrapie in sheep; chronic wasting disease in deer, elk and moose; and bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), or mad cow disease, in cattle.. Scientists have associated the accumulation of these clusters with tissue damage that leaves sponge-like holes in the brain.

“This exciting advance, the culmination of decades of studies on prion diseases, markedly improves on available diagnostic tests for CJD that are less reliable, more difficult for patients to tolerate, and require more time to obtain results,” said Anthony S. Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), a component of NIH. “With additional validation, this test has potential for use in clinical and agricultural settings.”

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According to the NIH, CJD is characterized by rapidly progressive dementia. Initially, individuals experience problems with muscular coordination; personality changes, including impaired memory, judgment, and thinking; and impaired vision. People with the disease also may experience insomnia, depression, or unusual sensations. CJD does not cause a fever or other flu-like symptoms. As the illness progresses, mental impairment becomes severe. Individuals often develop involuntary muscle jerks called myoclonus, and they may go blind. They eventually lose the ability to move and speak and enter a coma. Pneumonia and other infections often occur in these individuals and can lead to death.