Diseases & Conditions


Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease

Synonyms of Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease
  • CJD
  • Jakob-Creutzfeldt Disease
  • Jakob's Disease
  • Subacute Spongiform Encephalopathy

Disorder Subdivisions

  • Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (V-CJD)

General Discussion
Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is an extremely rare degenerative brain disorder (i.e., spongiform encephalopathy) characterized by sudden development of rapidly progressive neurological and neuromuscular symptoms. With symptom onset, affected individuals may develop confusion, depression, behavioral changes, impaired vision, and/or impaired coordination. As the disease progresses, there may be rapidly progressive deterioration of cognitive processes and memory (dementia), resulting in confusion and disorientation, impairment of memory control, personality disintegration, agitation, restlessness, and other symptoms and findings. Affected individuals also develop neuromuscular abnormalities such as muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass (wasting); irregular, rapid, shock-like muscle spasms (myoclonus); and/or relatively slow, involuntary, continual writhing movements (athetosis), particularly of the arms and legs. Later stages of the disease may include further loss of physical and intellectual functions, a state of unconsciousness (coma), and increased susceptibility to repeated infections of the respiratory tract (e.g., pneumonia). In many affected individuals, life-threatening complications may develop less than a year after the disorder becomes apparent.

In approximately 90 percent of cases, CJD appears to occur randomly for no apparent reason (sporadically). About 10 percent of affected individuals may have a hereditary predisposition for the disorder. Reports in the medical literature suggest that familial cases of CJD are consistent with an autosomal dominant mode of inheritance. In addition, in some extremely rare cases, CJD may take an infectious form. The disorder is thought to result from changes (mutations) in the gene that regulates the production of the human prion protein or direct contamination (transmission) with abnormal prion protein in infected brain tissue.

A variant form of CJD (V-CJD) has been reported in the United Kingdom that affects younger people (median age at onset: 28 years) than does classic CJD. In 1996, experts suggested the possibility that this variant might be associated with consumption of beef from cows with a related infectious brain disorder known as Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) or Mad Cow Disease. BSE was first identified in the UK in 1986 and the number of reported cases grew rapidly, peaking in the winter of 1992-93 when almost 1,000 new cases were reported each week. Later, BSE also began to appear in some other European countries. Scientific research and debate continue concerning the potential link between BSE and V-CJD. In addition, coordinated national and international efforts are in place concerning the prevention, study, and surveillance of BSE and CJD. In early December 2000, European Union agriculture ministers agreed upon new measures to combat the spread of mad cow disease, including incinerating any cow over 30 months of age that had not tested negative for BSE. (BSE is thought to become detectable and infectious when cattle are approximately 30 months old.)

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD), an extremely rare degenerative brain disorder (i.e., spongiform encephalopathy), is characterized by the sudden onset of rapidly progressive neurological and neuromuscular symptoms. Initially, these symptoms, which typically become apparent during the fifth or sixth decade of life, may include subtle signs of confusion, depression, forgetfulness, sleeping difficulties (insomnia), and/or behavioral changes. Affected individuals may also experience impaired vision, abnormal physical sensations, and/or difficulties with voluntary coordination.

Individuals with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease may then experience rapidly progressive loss of intellectual abilities, demonstrating impaired memory and judgment and distinct personality changes (dementia). Neuromuscular abnormalities become more apparent at this stage of the disorder and may include muscle weakness and loss of muscle mass (wasting); muscular rigidity; tremors; repeated, involuntary, shock-like muscle spasms (myoclonus) and/or slow, continual, involuntary writhing movements, particularly of the arms and legs (athetosis); increasingly impaired coordination of voluntary movements; and/or difficulty with speech (dysarthria) due to impaired muscular control. Vision may also become increasingly impaired.

In individuals with CJD, neurological and neuromuscular impairment continues to progress, and later stages of the disorder may be characterized by loss of physical and intellectual functions, coma, and increased susceptibility to repeated infections of the respiratory tract (e.g., pneumonia). In many cases, life-threatening complications tend to develop less than a year after the disorder becomes apparent.

A variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (V-CJD) has been reported in the medical literature. V-CJD appears to occur in younger individuals (i.e., before the age of approximately 40 years, with many cases occurring in adolescents) and tends to have a longer clinical course.

Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease appears to be initially characterized by depression, anxiety, withdrawal, and personality and behavioral changes. Delusions are sometimes reported. In some cases, individuals with the disorder may have abnormal sensations (dyesthesia) or pain in the face, arms, and legs. Within a few weeks or months, affected individuals experience the onset of progressive neuromuscular symptoms including an impaired ability to coordinate voluntary movement (cerebellar ataxia); severely diminished muscle tone (hypotonia); and slow, halting speech. In some cases, neuromuscular abnormalities may include irregular, rapid, involuntary jerky movements (chorea). As the disease advances, individuals with V-CJD demonstrate increasing memory impairment that progresses to dementia. During later stages of the disorder, affected individuals may experience repeated, involuntary, shock-like muscle spasms (myoclonus). In individuals with V-CJD, life-threatening complications tend to develop approximately two years after initial symptoms occur.

Scientists believe that a transmissible agent is responsible for causing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Initially, this was thought to be a slow virus, since a period of many years may elapse between the initial exposure and the appearance of symptoms.

However, today it is believed that this agent is very different from viruses and other known infectious agents. Instead, the agent is called a prion, and it is thought to transform normal protein molecules into infectious ones.

Although the disease is caused by a transmissible agent, it is not considered to be contagious in the traditional sense. In approximately 90 percent of cases, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) appears to occur randomly for unknown reasons (sporadically). About 10 percent of affected individuals may exhibit a hereditary predisposition for the disorder. In some extremely rare cases, CJD may take an infectious form.

CJD is thought to result from direct contamination (transmission) with abnormal prion protein in infected brain tissue or from changes (mutations) in the gene* that regulates (encodes for) the production of the human prion protein. The term prion stands for proteinaceous infectious particles. Abnormal changes in the prion protein are thought to play some role in causing deterioration in certain areas of the brain, appearing as sponge-like holes and gaps (thus, the term spongiform encephalopathy). Such spongiform degeneration in turn results in the progressive neurological and neuromuscular symptoms associated with CJD.

The gene that regulates the production of the human prion protein, known as prion-related protein or PRNP, has been mapped to the short arm (p) of chromosome 20 (20p12-pter). Chromosomes are found in the nucleus of all body cells. They carry the genetic characteristics of each individual. Pairs of human chromosomes are numbered from 1 through 22, with an unequal 23rd pair of X and Y chromosomes for males and two X chromosomes for females. Each chromosome has a short arm designated as p and a long arm identified by the letter q. Chromosomes are further subdivided into bands that are numbered.

Some researchers suggest that the normal cellular prion protein (PrPc) plays an essential role in preventing the degeneration and loss of brain cells. During one laboratory study, when researchers removed the normal prion protein from nerve cells (i.e., cultured neurons), the genetically altered neurons soon expired. However, when researchers restored normal PrPc to cells without the protein, affected neurons returned to health. Further research is necessary to determine the implications of such findings.

Many researchers suggest that CJD and other prion diseases result from abnormal changes in the shape of the prion protein. The modified form of PrPc that may cause disease is known as PrPsc (for scrapie prion protein). In other words, improper folding of the protein is thought to prevent it from being appropriately broken down by the body. As a result, abnormal prion proteins gradually accumulate, forming fixed deposits (plaques) in the brain and the associated, progressive neurological and neuromuscular impairment seen in those with such disorders. Laboratory studies conducted by an international research team suggest that a relatively small, specific portion of the prion protein (i.e., a specific prion peptide sequence) normally prevents the protein from folding improperly. Peptides are protein fragments consisting of one or more amino acids; in turn, amino acids are chemical compounds that are essentially the building blocks of proteins. The researchers demonstrated that adding the specific prion peptide to cells affected by scrapie, a form of spongiform encephalopathy that originates in sheep and goats, prevented the production of new, abnormal prion protein. In addition, the team established that normal prion proteins in a variety of animals may share the same core region or specific peptide sequence (i.e, prion peptide sequence 119 to 136). Such findings suggest that a specific part of the prion protein itself may be used to block its ability to fold incorrectly, potentially preventing progression to disease. However, much additional research is required before it may be determined whether such findings may have practical treatment implications in individuals with CJD or other forms of human prion disease. (For more information on other human prion diseases, please see the Related Disorders section of this report below.)

In March of 1996, the British government announced that consumption of beef from cows with an infectious brain disorder (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) may have caused a variant form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (V-CJD) in several young people in the United Kingdom. Cows with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, also known as BSE or Mad Cow disease, experience rapidly progressive neurological and neuromuscular symptoms similar to those associated with CJD in humans. As with CJD, abnormal changes in prion proteins are also thought to play a role in the brain degeneration associated with BSE.

BSE was first recognized in the UK in 1986 and was linked to contaminated cow feed composed of sheep meat and bone meal. The sheep may have been infected with scrapie. In the late 1980s, Britain banned the use of such feeds in animals raised for human consumption.

Affected Populations
By the summer of 2002, European experts had counted 97 people in Great Britain, three in France, and one in Ireland who had died or were dying from the new variant of CJD (V-CJD) since it was first identified in 1996. All of the cases identified in England had a particular genetic trait, which is not a mutation, that may have predisposed them to the condition. The genetic abnormality involves a variation of the prion protein. Approximately 40 percent of the British population has this genetic trait.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) appears to affect males and females in equal numbers. It is an extremely rare human disorder that occurs worldwide with an incidence rate that has remained stable at approximately one case per million people annually. In individuals in which CJD is thought to take an infectious form (e.g., iatrogenic transmission), symptoms appear to occur approximately 10 years after initial infection (incubation period) although, in some cases, incubation periods have extended up to 30 years.

In individuals with the classical form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (i.e. sporadic form), the disorder usually becomes apparent in the fifth or sixth decade of life (i.e., a median of approximately 60 years of age). In some (but not all) rare cases of classical CJD in which the disorder is thought to be inherited, the disorder may become apparent earlier in life (such as in the third or fourth decade). The clinical course of the disease tends to be rapidly progressive, with life-threatening complications occurring less than a year after the disorder becomes apparent.

Variant CJD appears to affect primarily individuals before the age of approximately 40 years, with many cases occurring in adolescents. V-CJD appears to have a more extended clinical course, with life-threatening complications typically occurring approximately two years after initial symptoms occur.

Related Disorders
Symptoms of the following disorders may be similar to those of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD). Comparison may be useful for a differential diagnosis:

Prion diseases
There are additional rare degenerative brain disorders that are human prion diseases. These include Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker disease, fatal familial insomnia, and kuru.

Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker (GSS) disease is a rare degenerative brain disease that is transmitted as an autosomal dominant trait. The disorder is typically characterized by increasingly impaired coordination of voluntary movements (cerebellar ataxia), with associated unsteadiness, clumsiness, imbalance, and an abnormal manner of walking (gait disturbances). With disease progression, affected individuals may develop involuntary, rhythmic, rapid eye movements (nystagmus) and abnormally slowed, slurred speech (dysarthria). Additional findings may include stiffness (rigidity), unusually slow movement (bradykinesia), and, in some cases, slowly progressive deterioration of mental functioning (dementia). GSS disease is caused by certain specific changes (mutations) in the gene (i.e., PRNP gene) located on chromosome 20 that regulates production of the human prion protein. Classic GSS disease is typically distinguished from CJD by an earlier age at symptom onset, a longer duration of disease progression, slowly evolving dementia, more prominent signs of cerebellar ataxia, and differences in degenerative changes of the brain (e.g., plaque deposits, spongiform changes). However, a form of GSS disease has been described in a Hungarian family with three affected sisters in whom associated symptoms were indistinguishable from those associated with sporadic CJD. According to researchers, the implications of such findings are currently unknown.

Fatal familial insomnia (FFI) is a rare, rapidly progressive, degenerative brain disorder that is transmitted as an autosomal dominant trait. The disorder typically becomes apparent during middle age or later life and is characterized by an inability to sleep or abnormal wakefulness that is resistant to treatment (intractable insomnia) and impaired functioning of the portion of the nervous system (i.e., autonomic nervous system) that regulates certain involuntary functions (dysautonomia). Dysautonomia may be characterized by fever (pyrexia), profuse sweating (diaphoresis), abnormal contraction of the pupils (miosis), and other associated findings. Individuals with FFI may also develop slurred, slowed speech (dysarthria); memory impairment and attention disturbances; complex hallucinations that may be described as dream-like states; and neuromuscular abnormalities. These may include increased reflex responses (hyperreflexia); impaired coordination of voluntary movements (ataxia); tremors; and involuntary, shock-like contractions of certain muscles (myoclonus). Neurodegenerative changes associated with FFI may be limited to certain regions of the brain (e.g., thalamic nuclei). Fatal familial insomnia is caused by a specific mutation of the PRNP gene on chromosome 20.

Kuru is a rare progressive degenerative brain disorder that occurs exclusively in members of the Fore linguistic tribal group of the New Guinea highlands. Associated symptoms include progressively impaired coordination of voluntary movements (ataxia) of the trunk, arms, and legs; slurred speech (dysarthria); a shivering-like tremor; visual disturbances; and paralysis. Neurodegenerative changes include generalized loss of nerve cells, particularly in the outer region of the brain (cerebral cortex), and the development of characteristic plaques (i.e., kuru plaques). Transmission of the disease is thought to result from ritualistic handling and ingestion (cannibalism) of brain tissue of deceased relatives. The incidence of kuru has dramatically declined with the cessation of such practices.

Non-Prion diseases
Alzheimer's disease is a common, progressive, degenerative brain disorder affecting memory, thought, and language. Neurodegenerative changes lead to the formation of plaques or patches within the brain and the loss of cholinergic neurotransmitter function. The early behavioral changes may be subtle; however, as the disease progresses, memory losses increase and there are personality, mood, and behavioral changes. There may also be disturbances of judgment, concentration, and speech along with confusion and restlessness. (For more information on this disorder, choose Alzheimer as your search term in the Rare Disease Database.)

There are several additional progressive conditions of the brain (e.g., Pick's disease, cerebral hematomas, etc.) that may be characterized by behavioral abnormalities, memory loss, dementia, neuromuscular symptoms, and/or other features similar to those associated with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. (For more information on these disorders, choose the exact disease name in question as your search term in the Rare Disease Database.)

Standard Therapies
According to the medical literature, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) should be considered in adults who experience a sudden onset of rapidly progressive dementia and neuromuscular symptoms such as repeated, involuntary, shock-like muscle spasms (myoclonus). However, confirming a diagnosis may be difficult since other neurological disorders share similar symptoms; in addition, laboratory tests may not detect abnormalities associated with CJD. In rare cases, computer-assisted tomography (CAT) scanning may reveal deterioration in certain areas of the brain, findings that may be associated with a number of other neurological disorders. (During CT scanning, a computer and x-rays are used to create a film showing cross-sectional images of the brain's tissue structure.) In classical CJD, electroencephalography (EEG), which records the brain's electrical impulses, may reveal characteric, abnormal brain wave patterns that are often apparent during later stages of CJD. However, such EEG testing alone cannot provide a definitive diagnosis. In addition, in individuals with Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, such testing may not show the EEG patterns typically observed in the classical form of the disease.

In some cases, removal and microscopic study of a small sample of brain tissue (biopsy) may reveal the characteristic sponge-like holes and gaps and other abnormalities (vacuolization and widespread plaques [spongiform degeneration]) occurring in CJD. However, such study may result in a false negative in some cases if the brain tissue that has been biopsed is not directly affected. In classical CJD, extensive spongiform changes and plaque formation occur throughout the outer layer of the two hemispheres of the cerebrum (cerebral cortex). In V-CJD, spongiform changes are most prominent in the paired nerve cell clusters within the cerebrum that play a role in controlling movements (basal ganglia) and the structure deep within the brain that transmits sensory impulses to the cerebral cortex (thalamus). In addition, plaque formation may be apparent in the cerebrum and the portion of the brain that plays a role in maintaining balance and coordinating voluntary movements (cerebellum).

In addition, researchers have identified a specific protein that may lead to a diagnostic blood test for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The protein, called S100, is normally found in certain brain cells (i.e., glial cells). The researchers found that, when comparing individuals with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and those with other disorders, people with CJD have abnormally increased levels of S100 in the fluid portion of the blood (serum). Although increased serum S100 levels may also be apparent in individuals with other neurological disorders (e.g., multiple sclerosis, brain damage due to an inadequate supply of oxygen [hypoxia], stroke), specialized imaging techniques and/or other diagnostic tests (e.g., lumbar puncture) may differentiate these disorders from CJD. According to the medical literature, it is possible that the serum S100 diagnostic test may become helpful in diagnosing CJD earlier in the course of the disease. Further studies are needed to determine the long-term safety, effectiveness, and reliability of serum S100 testing in diagnosing individuals with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

The treatment of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is symptomatic and supportive. Affected individuals should be carefully monitored to help guard against infections.

Genetic counseling may be of benefit for families of affected individuals.

Investigational Therapies
Iinformation on current clinical trials is posted on the Internet at www.clinicaltrials.gov. All studies receiving U.S. Government funding, and some supported by private industry, are posted on this government web site.

For information about clinical trials being conducted at the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, MD, contact the NIH Patient Recruitment Office:

Tollfree: (800) 411-1222
TTY: (866) 411-1010
Email: [email protected]

For information about clinical trials sponsored by private sources, contact:

Organizations related to Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease
  • Alzheimer's Association
    225 North Michigan Avenue
    Chicago IL 60601-7633
    Phone #: 312-335-8700
    800 #: 800-272-3900
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.alz.org
  • Alzheimer's Disease Education and Referral Center
    P.O. Box 8250
    Silver Spring MD 20907-8250
    Phone #: 301-495-3311
    800 #: 800-438-4380
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.alzheimers.org
  • C-Mac Informational Services, Inc.
    120 Clinton Lane
    Cookeville TN 38501-8946
    Phone #: 931-268-1201
    800 #: N/A
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.caregivernews.org
  • CJD Aware!
    2527 South Carrollton Avenue
    New Orleans LA 70118-3013
    Phone #: 504-861-4627
    800 #: N/A
    e-mail: [email protected]; [email protected]
    Home page: www.cjdaware.com
  • CJD Voice
    None None None
    Phone #: --
    800 #: --
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.cjdvoice.org
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
    1600 Clifton Road NE
    Atlanta GA 30333
    Phone #: 404-639-3534
    800 #: 800-311-3435
    e-mail: http://www.cdc.gov/netinfo.htm
    Home page: http://www.cdc.gov/
  • Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Foundation, Inc.
    PO Box 5312
    Akron OH 44334
    Phone #: 330-665-5590
    800 #: 800-659-1991
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.cjdfoundation.org
  • Human BSE Foundation
    Matfen Court
    County Durham None DH2 2TX
    Phone #: 019-1 3-89 4157
    800 #: N/A
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.hbsef.org
  • NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
    6610 Rockledge Drive
    Bethesda MD 20892-6612
    Phone #: 301-496-5717
    800 #: --
    e-mail: N/A
    Home page: http://www.niaid.nih.gov/
  • National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
    1700 Diagonal Rd
    Alexandria VA 22314
    Phone #: 703-837-1500
    800 #: 800-658-8898
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.nhpco.org
  • National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS)
    31 Center Drive
    Bethesda MD 20892-2540
    Phone #: 301-496-5751
    800 #: 800-352-9424
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.ninds.nih.gov/
  • National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center
    Case Western Reserve University
    Cleveland OH 44106-4907
    Phone #: 216-368-0587
    800 #: N/A
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.cjdsurveillance.com
  • UCSF Memory and Aging Center
    350 Parnassus Avenue
    San Francisco CA 94117
    Phone #: 415-476-6800
    800 #: N/A
    e-mail: N/A
    Home page: http://memory.ucsf.edu
  • World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for the Americas (AMRO)
    Pan American Health Organization (PAHO)
    Washington DC 20037
    Phone #: 202-974-3000
    800 #: --
    e-mail: [email protected]
    Home page: http://www.who.ch/

For a Complete Report

This is an abstract of a report from the National Organization for Rare Disorders, Inc. ? (NORD). A copy of the complete report can be obtained for a small fee by visiting the NORD website. The complete report contains additional information including symptoms, causes, affected population, related disorders, standard and investigational treatments (if available), and references from medical literature. For a full-text version of this topic, see http://www.rarediseases.org/search/rdblist.html