While most of us relate Mad Cow Disease to, well, cows, similar diseases occur in people. Mad Cow disease is caused by a protein called a prion which also causes diseases in people like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) and Fatal Familial Insomnia. These prion diseases have been identified in nature in many different animals including sheep, cats, deer and elk. These diseases affect the brain and are almost always fatal. In 2009, approximately 350 people died from CJD in the U.S. (CDC)
Until recently scientist have had problems replicating the prion diseases in the laboratory. Walker Jackson a professor at MIT recently changed that. In his laboratory they were able to make changes to the prions so that they will infect mice. Not only that, but the disease in mice is identical to that seen in humans with CJD. Jackson plans on using these models to study parts of the brain that are not affected by the prions to learn more about the disease, with the hopes of finding a cure.