Can Cannibalism Fight Brain Disease? Only Sort Of.

Can cannibalism fight a rare brain disease? That’s what multiple headlines have suggested this week, but don’t pick up your fork just yet.

A study published Wednesday in the scientific journal Nature found that people of Papua New Guinea’s Fore tribe — a group that formerly consumed the brains of family members at funerals — are now resistant to a rare, degenerative brain disease called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD).

However, the reason that they developed this resistance to the disease is because their brain-eating practice led to a major outbreak of kuru — a specific type of CJD — in the 1950s, Reuters reports.. A Nature news release explains that CJD occurs sporadically, but it spreads if someone consumes the brain of someone who has it. The epidemic killed as much as 2 percent of the tribe’s population each year during its height in the 1950s, according to Reuters.

The newest paper states that the Fore people — who ceased practicing cannibalism by the end of the 1950s — now have genetic resistance to kuru, according to Reuters. Even more impressively, researchers found that the kuru-resistant gene also protects against all forms of CJD.

“This is a striking example of Darwinian evolution in humans,” study co-author John Collinge of the University College London’s Institute of Neurology told Reuters.

During a kuru outbreak, people with the kuru-resistant gene were more likely to survive, reproduce, and therefore pass that gene along to their offspring. So yes, eating brains in this case did help people become resistant — but only because eating brains subjected their community to a deadly epidemic that killed off people who weren’t resistant in the first place.

Collinge told Reuters his team is looking into how the research could offer —> Read More