March 2005

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

Brain Trust: The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer's Disease

Do you enjoy a nice big steak? Juicy hamburgers? Enjoy them while you can. If even half of Colm Kelleher’s Brain Trust: The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease is true, the writing’s on the wall for our lives as carnivores.

Kelleher opens with descriptions of cattle mutilations in Washington state (undertaken, in his theory, to hide evidence of Mad Cow disease), but then backtracks swiftly to provide a history of the disease’s pathology and discovery. Otherwise known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), and caused by infectious proteins known as prions that turn organs like the brain into spongy useless blobs, it was not first discovered in cows but in humans.

When medical researcher D. Carleton Gajdusek first visited Papua New Guinea in 1957, he found hundreds of Fore tribespeople dying from a mysterious disease they called kuru. Eventually he prepared a traveling exhibit on the disease, which was seen by an American pathologist who thought it might be related to his own work with sheep that had died from a disease called scrapie. From there and over the course of decades, scientists would eventually find a host of similarly related diseases across species and continents: kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans, scrapie in sheep, BSE in cows, Chronic Wasting Disease in deer and elk, and transmissible mink encephalopathy in mink.

Confused? Yeah, I’m not sure of all the details myself, but I do get the main points: these diseases are always fatal. They are caused by prions, which can live in the ground or animal bodies for years. And, as Kelleher explains in brisk and concise chapters, they can be transmitted from one species to another, through various food sources, and can take years to cause the debilitating symptoms for which they are famous.

For the historical detail alone, this is an important and readable book on the subject. Kelleher’s true genius, however, is in his ability to speculate, convincingly, that the 8,902 percent increase in deaths from Alzheimer’s Disease over the past twenty-four years can be attributed to this infectious agent’s presence in the human food chain. As if that weren’t disturbing enough, Kelleher also relates how one of the early pioneers in the field, the highly respected Gajdusek, simply carried vials of different strains of scrapie and kuru from Great Britain into the United States, disregarding USDA rules. From 1963 through 1970 he and other researchers injected a wide variety of animals with those materials at their laboratory in the middle of a wildlife refuge in Patuxent, Maryland. Just picture it: hundreds of animals, some as small as mice, all infected and housed together in converted barns/labs in the middle of a heavily animal-populated refuge. Look no further, Kelleher suggests, for the origin of this family of diseases on the North American continent.

Reader reviews at Amazon.com focus on the book’s unpleasant revelations about the mammalian food chain, and many reviewers state their intentions to eat only “organic” meat as a result of reading it. Myself, I think they’re missing the point. Perhaps I’m just vindictive, but does anyone else think that Gajdusek, who won the Nobel Prize in 1976, should lose it as punishment for walking dangerous and largely misunderstood infectious agents around the globe? For that matter, what kind of punishment can we plan for all the government agency bureaucrats and politicians who not only tried to cover up incidences of the diseases, but also kept trying to export animal food containing contaminated blood and brain matter, to other countries?

Kelleher, a biochemist, does end his book with a note of optimism regarding our chances of containing this epidemic. Although comparisons will inevitably be drawn between this work and Eric Schlosser’s huge bestseller, Fast Food Nation, I think this book is too subtly horrifying, even with that optimism, to do as well commercially. Schlosser’s self-righteous reporter’s voice often struck me as almost unnecessarily hysterical, whereas Kelleher’s descriptive scientist’s voice and calm recitation of lax experimental methods and petty bureaucratic squabbles is extremely unsettling in its understatement.

It’s a good book. It’s a scary book, and it will undoubtedly be disdained by many for its conspiracy theories regarding cattle mutilations and Alzheimer’s Disease, but ultimately, whether it scares you out of eating meat or not, it should at least cure you of any trust you may still place in the scientific and governmental establishment.

Brain Trust: The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease by Colm A. Kelleher
Paraview Pocket Books
ISBN: 0743499352
312 pages