Tribe Became Immune to Brain Disease— by Eating Brains

The cannibalistic practice spread disease that some managed to resist
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 11, 2015 7:53 AM CDT
Updated Jun 14, 2015 7:00 PM CDT
Tribe Became Immune to Brain Disease— by Eating Brains
In this 1998 photo provided by National Geographic via Christie’s Auction House, Huli tribesmen in Papua New Guinea.   (AP Photo/National Geographic, Jodi Cobb)

When members of the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea ate the brains of their extended kin at funerals, it was their way of paying respect. Unfortunately, the ritual also helped spread kuru prion disease, a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD)—a rare but fatal brain disease that can lead to dementia and works on a molecular level much like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Reporting in the journal Nature, researchers say they've isolated the mutated gene that helped some members of the tribe survive the brain disease that at its height in the 1950s claimed 2% of the population annually. "Several individuals right at the epicenter of the epidemic, they have this difference that we have not seen anywhere else in the world," says a study co-leader.

"This is a striking example of Darwinian evolution in humans, the epidemic of prion disease selecting a single genetic change that provided complete protection against an invariably fatal dementia," the University College London researcher, who's studied kuru for decades, tells the Guardian. To test the prion protein gene he bred mice with it and found they were resistant to all forms of CJD, not just kuru, reports the BBC. His team is already working on follow-up research to learn more about how the gene works and perhaps even devise a way to prevent CJD and other forms of dementia. (One hospital's mistake last year exposed 18 patients to CJD.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.