Brains … it’s what’s for dinner. Or at least it used to be at funerals in Papua New Guinea where members of the remote Fore tribe consumed the brains of the deceased. While this grisly cannibalistic practice has largely disappeared (although not completely), the study of it hasn’t. Researchers have recently discovered that, while some tribe members contracted fatal brain diseases from eating the brains of the dead (ironically), others developed a resistance to the mad cow-like disease that killed them and to dementia and other brain conditions.
According to a report on the research in the journal Nature, before giving up funeral brain feasting in the 1950s, up to 2 percent of the Fore tribe members died annually from kuru prion disease. Prions are infectious proteins that can cause mad cow disease in cattle and the similar Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans. These prions can also cause dementia.
Researchers found that the surviving members of the Fore tribe were free of dementia and Parkinson’s disease, another neurodegenerative disease, because they had developed a gene that resists the prions. This was a pretty impressive find, says scientist John Collinge of the Institute of Neurology’s prion unit at University College London.
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.
There are 47.5 million people worldwide with some form of dementia and that number grows by 7.7 million each year. Will they – and anyone who wants to protect themselves from developing dementia – be forced to become cannibals?
Fortunately, the answer is probably not. Geneticists have used this research to develop mice that are completely resistant to kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Now they just need to figure out how to duplicate this safely in humans.
See, something good CAN come from eating brains.