Research involving the Fore peoples, a fairly large tribe living in Papua New Guinea, has helped scientists better understand ‘prion’ conditions and how to possibly fight common forms of dementia. These tribesmen have developed a strong genetic resistance to a neurological disease called kuru, which is similar to the infamous mad-cow disease, thanks to their earlier cannibalistic practice of eating their relatives’ brains at funerals – according to the findings of a team of British and New Guinean scientist published in the ‘Nature’ scientific journal.
Of course, this means that many Fore peoples died over the course of this genetic development, so don’t start bringing your cooking supplies to grandma’s funeral just yet. At the height of the kuru epidemic in the late 1950’s, nearly 2% of the New Guinean tribe died every year. However, those that didn’t were eventually found to have the ‘prion resitance’ gene, which stops the prion proteins from mutating and building brain-damaging polymers. Prions are infectious agents that have been known to cause brain diseases such as CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease), and BSE (bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as the aforementioned mad-cow disease.) and scientists now recognize that these diseases share a similar process of prion mutation with common dementias such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
The Nature journal states that they have identified the specific prion resistance gene, with John Collinge from the ‘prion unit’ of University College London’s Institue of Neurology’s saying:
“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.”
Collinge confirmed that his team is now studying the molecular basis of this effect, hoping it will link them to other types of malformed proteins that develop in the brain and cause the more common forms of dementia, as prions are a very rare (yet very potent) cause.
According to the World Health Organization, there are about 47.5 million people who have dementia and there are 7.7 million new cases every year worldwide. The total number of cases is estimated to reach 75.6 million in 2030 and potentially even triple to 135.5 million by 2050. With all this in mind, while the scientific and medical community has made some major developments in dementia research over the past few years, this may be the beginning of an actual cure or – at the least – some form of serious treatment. Anyone who has had a relative suffer from this terrible condition knows just how devastating it can be. I mean, memory is the sum of who we are – and who we were – and to essentially lose that is a disturbing thought, so lets hope this discovery leads to a brighter future where this horrible condition no longer exists.