"Blowing brains" & progressive inflammatory neuropathy

The New York Times and Washington Post have stories on the appearance of a mysterious neurological illness in workers at a pig slaughterhouse in the southeastern Minnesota town of Austin.

The condition has been named progressive inflammatory neuropathy (PIN), and has so far been reported in 6 men and 6 women, all of whom complained of burning sensations, weakness and numbness in the limbs. The symptoms developed over periods of between 8 to 213 days, and in some cases progressed to paralysis of the legs. They are likely to be caused by demylination and inflammation of the peripheral nerves or nerve roots, as evidenced in 11 of the patients by various diagnostic tests.

PIN has been linked to the way in which brain tissue is harvested from the slaughtered animals. In a process referred to as "blowing brains", a compressed air device is placed through the foramen magnum, the opening at the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes. The force of the air ejected from the device liquefies the brain tissue, making it easier to remove.

The process generates microscopic droplets which sometimes splatter the workers. It may also aerosolize some of the brain material. According to an ongoing investigation by researchers at the Centres for Disease Control, inhalation of the aerosol causes an autoimmune response - the antibodies activated by the pig brain tissue also attack the human nervous tissue.

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I first heard about this a couple of weeks back and it certainly is interesting (and a little creepy, to me). As the WaPo article says, the million dollar question is "why now?" since this is not a new technique.

The thing that boggles my mind is the fact that anyone thought doing this to pig carcasses was a good idea in the first place. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that high-pressure air jets + porcine neurological tissue + unprotected workers = asking for trouble.

But then again, what's worker safety when some agro-bastards can made 2 cents selling brains.

By Woody Tanaka (not verified) on 06 Feb 2008 #permalink

Yikes. But makes sense... I once worked for an auto-glass installer, and they didn't have/wear ventilators (or gloves for that matter)... working with industrial primers and solvents.

Also worked for a mobile truck wash (man, these jobs were terrible...) with the same deal, using abrasives and soaps that were carcinogenic... had gloves but the chemicals burned through or soaked through (turned everything yellow... :|)... they claimed their chemicals were environmentally friendly so it was okay...

I really abhor ignorance.

I just finished 'The Family Who Couldn't Sleep' so have BSE and CJD on the mind -- this sounds closely related. Also, what do they do with the pig brains? Are they used in feed, or what?

I was wondering what they used the brains for, too, so I read the NYT article:

"The brains were pooled, poured into 10-pound containers and shipped to be sold as food, mostly in China and Korea, where cooks stir-fry them, but also in some parts of the American South, where people like them scrambled up with eggs."

Reading this article will make anyone appreciate their job a little bit more. As long as their job doesn't involve high-pressure pig brain extraction.

More often than not, they package them up and send them south east asian countries where they use them for food.


Hi. I'm putting you on my blogroll. I haven't got enough science-oriented material, I love neuroscience, and I'm about an hour away from Austin, MN. I thought the questions: Why now? and Who considers aerosolized pig brain a good idea? were especially thoughtful. What about the people who are supposed to be examining these risks and know they are legally and ethically responsible for them? Thanks for the vent.

This seems to be the most active thread on this subject. The subject has far-reaching consequences.

1. I've seen the story referenced on multiple blogs and news portals but I've not seen the original source. Can anyone confirm the processing center involved and people involved? I've seen references to late 2006. In no article have I seen names of people or contacts that could confirm any of this actually happened. Not saying it didn't but would like to get to the original source of this as it seems uncertain.

2. Is this practice as standard as the info suggests? I grew up all over the world and travel often in Asia and the Middle-East. I've seen whole brains sliced and fried and served as a sandwich. I've seen intact brains mixed with eggs. But, I've never seen liquified brains served in any country. I'm not saying it doesn't happen but I'm not aware of any use of liquified brains (pig or not).

3. Why would this occur if inhaled but not occur if eaten? Is there a risk to those (in China and Korea) who eat these particular brains?

4. Why now? This as you've shown is an amazing question. Something about the human immune system is triggered all of a sudden to the precence of the amino acids or proteins contained in the pig brains. Is it because the pigs brains themselves are "different" now? There are several companies that have been producing genetically modified pigs (for various reasons). One project is to produce organs for transplant in humans. Could this have unintentionally introduced enough human DNA into a pig to cause a change in neural chemistry? Enough so that when exposed the human immune system gets "confused" and attacks it's own organs? (the myelin sheath surrounding nerves in this case).

5. Could this explain the increase in cases of Demyelination in the Southern United States?

I currently live in Central Europe and have done searches in German, Spanish, and French but don't see anything similar being reported.

As a result I'm thinking it's due to DNA manipulation of pigs in the U.S. which are not permitted to be sold in the EU yet.



By Davis Bradley (not verified) on 06 Mar 2009 #permalink