Medschool Spongiform Encephalopathy

My brain feels spongy.  I have had a long day at uni, during which I am not sure that I learned very much.  I don’t feel like doing any more study tonight, though.  My brain feels spongy but not in such a way as to suggest it could soak anything up.  More in the sense of being riddled with holes.

In two-and-a-bit months I have three exams, and I have no idea whether I can pass them.  I have not got a clear sense of how much information I have managed to retain from the 25 weeks of classes I have had so far, and that’s without adding another nine weeks worth of information on top.  I guess the only way to know is to test myself.  So, ask me anything.

How about Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy?  Well, this is the bovine (cow) form of v-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.  In our bovine friends, it is called Mad Cow Disease.  In humans unlucky enough to have ingested or handled infected cow products it produces a variant (hence the v-) of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.  This is a prion disease, which means that it is caused by prions, which are just bits of protein folded in the wrong way.  If you are infected with this prion, it will eventually cause proteins in your brain cells to unravel and fold back up again the wrong way (turning alpha helices into beta sheets), triggering a feedback loop which spreads the mis-folding process from one cell to the next.  This causes your brain to become pitted and riddled with holes.  This will give you symptoms including dementia and loss of proper control of your limbs.  And it will kill you.

I first became interested in Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy in 1996, which is apparently when it was discovered (not by me).  The cause of Mad Cow Disease was traced to the practice of feeding cows with pellets made from ground-up left-over bits of sheep, including their brains.  Because of course, as we all know, cows have been eating sheep since the dawn of time.  Not.

I don’t actually need to know anything at all about BSE or v-CJD for my exams, it’s just something I happen to know about from my first degree, which was an Arts degree.  I spent a fair bit of time translating articles on the phenomenon from English to German and vice versa.  So, I guess that’s one more way in which my B.A. is helping me with medicine.  Except that I don’t need to know this right now.

Given that I haven’t done much reading on the topic since about ten years ago, I thought I should double-check my facts while writing this.  Good news!  Wikipedia informs me that I actually DID learn something today.  There is a really interesting field of medical research underway called RNA interference, and I had a lecture on it less than eight hours ago.  Turns out that RNA interference is being trialled in mice as a treatment for prion-induced encephalopathy.

I hope it works.  I know my brain feels less spongy already.


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