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 insights into other more common brain diseases like Parkinson's, but there are no answers yet. So for now, there's no need to purchase that Chianti.

Plus, we hear cannibalism can be addictive.