Whether we like to admit or not, cannibalism has been a real practice all throughout our history. As a promotional video for Hannibal informed a while ago, during the 19th century, sailors used to draw straws in order to determine which one of them would get killed and eaten so that the rest of them could survive.
Cannibalism is common in fairy tales, which one has to assume have been inspired by real life events to a certain extent – the witch fattening up Hansel and Gretel before cooking them, the evil queen eating Snow White’s heart. And as far legal repercussions go, technically speaking cannibalism is not even illegal in most countries.
Now, a recent study published in the journal Nature has found that a remote Papua New Guinea tribe has become immune to dementia, how else? By eating human brains.
Researchers from Britain and Papua New Guinea reveal that the Fore people have made a habit of eating the brains of their deceased. As a direct result of their diet they’ve developed genetic resistance to Kuru, a condition similar to mad-cow disease, and one that claimed many lives in the 1950s. Ironically, Kuru used to be spread precisely by eating the brains of relatives during their funeral as a sign of respect.
The international team of scientists set out to take a look at the area that was the most affected during the 1950s and identify members of the tribe who have been exposed to Kuru, but survived it.
The working theory was that since these people are somehow resistant to Kuru, possibly because of certain genetic changes, identifying them and examining them could provide experts with valuable inside on how treat other mental illnesses such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD).
Researchers at the Medical Research Council’s Prion Unit (MRC Unit) did just that and found that the prion protein gene had undergone important changes in these subjects. It seemed like it had evolved so that it would offer protection against Kuru.
In order to prove their hypothesis, the Medical Research Council’s Prion team genetically engineered the exact same change in lab mice.
Dr Emmanuel Asante, lead researcher, gave a statement explaining the results: “From the human genetic work the Unit has carried out in Papua New Guinea we were expecting the mice to show some resistance to disease. However, we were surprised that the mice were completely protected from all human prion strains. The result could not have been clearer or more dramatic”.
Professor John Collinge, Medical Research Council’s Prion Unit director, gave a statement of his own, stressing what a remarkable example of Darwinian evolution in humans this truly is – the epidemic of prion disease selected a single genetic change that offered complete protection against an invariably fatal form of dementia.
Prion proteins are infectious agents that change their shape and stick together in order to form polymers that damage the brain. They are known for causing several brain illnesses such as CJD, scrapie and BSE, as well as dementia.
He went on to add that scientists are currently studying the genetic change in order to fully understand the molecular basis of the effect, in hope of learning how other misshapen proteins develop in the human brain and lead to degenerative brain diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
Image Source: theatlantic.com