Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) is the most common human form of a group of rare, fatal brain disorders known as prion diseases.

About Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease 

Sponge-like lesions in the brain tissue of a CJD patient.Prion diseases, such as Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, occur when prion protein, which is found throughout the body but whose normal function isn't yet known, begins folding into an abnormal three-dimensional shape. This shape change gradually triggers prion protein in the brain to fold into the same abnormal shape.


Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease causes a type of dementia that gets worse unusually fast. More common causes of dementia, such as Alzheimer's, Lewy body dementia and frontotemporal dementia, typically progress more slowly.

Through a process scientists don't yet understand, misfolded prion protein destroys brain cells. Resulting damage leads to rapid decline in thinking and reasoning as well as involuntary muscle movements, confusion, difficulty walking and mood changes.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is rare, occurring in about one in 1 million people annually worldwide.

Experts generally recognize the following main types of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease: 

  • Sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease develops spontaneously for no known reason. It accounts for 85 percent of cases. On average, sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease first appears between ages 60 and 65.
  • Familial Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is caused by certain changes in the chromosome 20 gene coding the biological blueprint for prion protein. People who develop familial Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease do so because they inherited the genetic changes from a parent. Familial Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease accounts for about 10 to 15 percent of cases. It develops, on average, at a younger age than sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, with some genetic types appearing as early as ages 20 to 40.
  • Acquired Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease results from exposure to an external source of abnormal prion protein. These sources are estimated to account for about 1 percent of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease cases. The two most common outside sources are:
    1. Medical procedures involving instruments used in neurosurgery, growth hormone from human sources or certain transplanted human tissues. The risk of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from medical procedures has been greatly reduced by improved sterilization techniques, new single-use instruments and synthetic sources of growth hormone.
    2. Meat or other products from cattle infected with bovine spongiform encephalopathy ("mad cow disease"), recognized in the mid-1990s as the cause of variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). Scientists traced this new type of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease to consumption of beef from cattle whose feed included processed brain tissue from other animals.

Chronic wasting disease

This prion disease is similar to mad cow disease that's been found in wild deer, elk and moose. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there's no evidence to date that the disease has been transmitted to humans.

Learn More From the CDC

Symptoms

Specific Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease symptoms experienced by an individual and the order in which they appear can differ significantly. Some common symptoms include:

  • Depression.
  • Agitation, apathy and mood swings.
  • Rapidly worsening confusion, disorientation, and problems with memory, thinking, planning and judgment.
  • Difficulty walking.
  • Muscle stiffness, twitches and involuntary jerky movements.

Diagnosis

Rapid symptom progression is one of the most important clues that a person may have Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

There is no single test — or any combination of tests — that can conclusively diagnose sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in a living person, but the following tests may help determine whether an individual has Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease:

 
  • Electroencephalogram (EEG) measures the brain's patterns of electrical activity similar to the way an electrocardiogram (ECG) measures the heart's electrical activity.
  • Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can detect certain brain changes consistent with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
  • Lumbar puncture (spinal tap) tests spinal fluid for the presence of certain proteins.

Causes and risks

Sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease has no known cause. Most scientists believe the disease begins when prion protein somewhere in the brain spontaneously misfolds, triggering a "domino effect" that misfolds prion protein throughout the brain. Genetic variation in the prion protein gene may affect risk of this spontaneous misfolding.

Mutations in the prion protein gene also may play a yet-to-be-determined role in making people susceptible to acquired Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease from external sources. Scientists don't yet know why acquired Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease seems to be transmitted through such a limited number of external sources. Researchers have found no evidence that the abnormal protein is commonly transmitted through sexual activity or blood transfusions.

Familial Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is caused by variations in the prion protein gene that increases the risk of an individual developing Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Researchers have identified more than 50 prion protein mutations in those with inherited Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Genetic testing can determine whether family members at risk have inherited a Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease-causing mutation. Experts strongly recommend professional genetic counseling both before and after genetic testing for hereditary Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Treatment and outcomes

There is no treatment that can slow or stop the underlying brain cell destruction caused by Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease and other prion diseases. Various drugs have been tested but have not shown any benefit. Clinical studies of potential Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease treatments are complicated by the rarity of the disease and its rapid progression.

Current therapies focus on treating symptoms and on supporting individuals and families coping with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Doctors may prescribe painkillers such as opiates to treat pain if it occurs. Muscle stiffness and twitching may be treated with muscle-relaxing medications or antiseizure drugs. In the later stages of the disease, individuals with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease become completely dependent on others for their daily needs and comfort.

Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease progresses rapidly. Those affected lose their ability to move or speak and require full-time care to meet their daily needs. An estimated 90 percent of those diagnosed with sporadic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease die within one year. Those affected by familial Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease tend to develop the disorder at an earlier age and survive somewhat longer than those with the sporadic form, as do those diagnosed with variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Scientists have not yet learned the reason for these differences in survival.

Help is available

Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease Foundation is a nonprofit organization that offers support, information and guidance to those dealing with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Call the Foundation at 800.659.1991.

The Alzheimer's Association can help you learn more about Alzheimer's and other dementias, and help you find local support services. Call our 24/7 Helpline at 800.272.3900.

Social Security Administration (SSA) has a "compassionate allowance" program in which workers diagnosed with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease can qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Call the SSA at 800.772.1213.

Medline Plus: Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease is a consumer health information service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health (NIH). This gateway page links to resources from NIH agencies, major medical centers and other sources.