The sickness spread at funerals. The Fore people, a once-isolated tribe in eastern Papua New Guinea, had a long standing tradition of mortuary feasts — eating the dead from their own community at funerals.
Men consumed the flesh of their deceased relatives, while women and children ate the brain. It was an expression of respect for the lost loved ones, but the practice wreaked havoc on the communities they left behind.
That’s because a deadly molecule that lives in brains was spreading to the women who ate them, causing a horrible degenerative illness called “kuru” that at one point killed two per cent of the population each year.
The practice was outlawed in the 1950s, and the kuru epidemic began to recede. But in its wake it left a curious and irreversible mark on the Fore: After years of eating brains, some Fore have developed a genetic resistance to the molecule that causes several fatal brain diseases, including kuru, mad cow disease and some cases of dementia.
The single, protective gene is identified in a study published this week in the journal Nature. Researchers say that the finding is a huge step toward understanding these diseases and other degenerative brain problems, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The gene works by protecting people against prions, a strange and sometimes deadly kind of protein. Though prions are naturally manufactured in all mammals, they can be deformed in a way that makes them turn on the body that made them, acting like a virus and attacking tissue.
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