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Comment on BSE case in Aberdeenshire

Following recent reports of a case of BSE at a farm in Aberdeeenshire, Professor Neil Mabbott provides information about the disease.

Professor Neil Mabbott
Professor Neil Mabbott

Following recent reports of a case of BSE, commonly known as "mad cow disease", at a farm in Aberdeenshire, Professor Neil Mabbott - Personal Chair in Immunopathology at The Roslin Institute and Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies - provides information about the disease, its causes, frequency and research in the area.

Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) is a deadly brain condition in cattle that is caused by infection with prions. Prions are infectious proteins which cause extensive brain damage once they enter the brain. Currently there is no treatment available to treat prion diseases.

While the identification of a new case of BSE in Scottish cattle is worrying, the measures that remain in place in the UK should ensure that there is no risk to the public. 

Clearly urgent research is now required to identify the potential source and characteristics of the BSE in this new case. 

Causes and prevention of BSE in the UK

BSE in UK cattle originally occurred due to the feeding of infected meat and bone meal, scientists say. During the UK outbreak in the 1980s and early 1990s, it is estimated that up to half a million cattle may have been infected in this way. 

As a consequence of this outbreak, feeding infected material to animals was banned in the UK. This has substantially reduced the incidence of further BSE cases in UK cattle.


Very occasionally BSE can occur in cattle, causing a disease known as "atypical BSE", and is not considered to be acquired as an infection. This has been the cause of many of the recent cases of the disease in the UK.  In extremely rare cases, BSE can be passed from animals to people, by eating contaminated meat, causing the variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD).  

However, since 1989, animal tissues where the BSE prion proteins are concentrated – the brain, spinal cord and spleen – have been banned from the human food chain. This has helped to substantially reduce the risk of further disease transmission to humans with only occasional isolated cases identified in recent years. Reports of the disease in people remain very rare and no new ones have been reported since 2016.

Research at The Roslin Institute

At The Roslin Institute, our work focuses on prion diseases or transmissible spongiform encephalopathies of animals and humans that pose significant risks to health, economic and food security.

Work of researchers at The Roslin Institute in this area includes, but is not limited to, investigating differences in routes of transmission and susceptibility of individuals to these diseases, understanding the development and characterisation of these diseases in both animals and humans, and exploring roles of the immune and nervous systems when individuals are infected.

Relevant links

BBC news: 'Mad cow disease' at Aberdeenshire farm after BSE confirmed

Prion Research and Neuropathology at The Roslin Institute

Prions Matter

Video: Prions - ninja pathogens and immune system hijackers

Twitter handles: @neilmabbott1 & @roslinprnp