Scientists have often associated cannibalism with degenerative brain disorders such as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (CJD) and some common forms of dementia. However, a recent study has revealed that the Fore people of eastern Papua New Guinea, who are known for their cannibalistic behavior, have developed resistance to some neurological diseases.
This finding of the study might hold implications for treating and/or preventing brain disorders like Alzheimer’s. The said study was conducted by the Prion Unit of the Medical Research Council at the University College London.
Here, it must be mentioned that the Fore people till the 1950s had almost no contact with the world outside. However, once anthropologists came to know about this tribe, they made a shocking discovery; they found that these people participated in gruesome cannibal rituals at funerals. To honor the dead, children and women would eat the dead body’s brain and the men would consume its flesh.
This ghastly habit made the Fore people suffer from a disastrous condition called kuru; kuru is an incurable, fatal disease and is caused by spreading of a deadly molecule. During the 1960s, this deadly condition kept on killing 2% of the total Fore population every year. The number of women dying from the disease was eight times more than the number of men drying from it.
Although the obnoxious ritual has already been prohibited, the tribe still experiences its effects; surprisingly, some of them are positive effects. A new paper published in the widely read journal Nature suggest that while the ritual was absolutely disastrous and resulted in a fatal epidemic, it might have lead to a strange genetic mutation making the Fore people resistant to kuru and other diseases.
According to the new study, survivors seem to have developed a type of prion protein that possesses the ability to make a person immune to different prion diseases like CJD. Experts are saying that comprehending these prions might help in offering better treatment to patients suffering from dementias such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.
The lead author of the study Prof. John Colligne said that this study is the first one to spot a natural genetic mutation capable of preventing kuru in humans.
During the study, researchers examined the Fore people who although got exposed to kuru survived several years after the tribe stopped taking part in cannibalism. The researchers found that each of the survivors developed a prion protein gene for protecting themselves against the deadly condition kuru.
After gathering the above-mentioned facts, the researchers engineered a similar genetic modification in mice to test the process. They altered an amino acid constituting the prion protein and found that the mice developed 100% resistance to kuru and all known forms of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease.