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Rochester Regional researchers: no clear link between squirrel brain consumption and death

Rochester Regional health
A poster presented by team of researchers from Rochester Regional Health noting a potential association between eating squirrel brains and a diagnosis with a deadly disease.

Rochester Regional Health cannot directly connect the reported death of a man with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease to his consumption of squirrel brain, researchers said Friday.

National and international media reports had indicated that the man’s squirrel consumption was linked to his development of the illness, which is similar in symptoms to mad cow disease.

But Emil Lesho, a hospital epidemiologist at Rochester Regional Health, said that’s not the conclusion he and a team of researchers had drawn.

The team presented research at a conference in San Francisco, after which LiveScience ran the initial story. That research did not show causation between squirrel brain consumption and the man’s disease, said Lesho. Instead, it showed an association.

“This is just typical epidemiology,” Lesho said. “You look for anything that could indicate where a disease came from.”

The research was not meant for public consumption, Lesho said. “Our original intent with this report was to present it in front of a jury of our peers at a scientific meeting, to become vetted.”

It started, Lesho said, when he and other researchers noticed what looked like a series of cases where patients had symptoms resembling mad cow disease. Statistically, Lesho said, they should see that disease about once a year. But now they were seeing “what looked like two or three patients over a four-month period.”

That would be concerning, because that family of diseases, caused by malformed proteins called prions, is very difficult to disinfect. Surgical equipment that comes in contact with patients who have prion diseases sometimes can’t be cleaned and needs to be disposed of entirely.

“We want to be very careful with this at our hospital,” Lesho said.

In the end, further research showed that some suspected cases were not confirmed, and the frequency of the disease was actually in line with statistical expectations.

Still, though, because prion diseases are transmissible through the consumption of an infected animal’s nerve cells, Lesho says the bottom line is, “be careful if you eat brain tissue.”

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.