This story begins in Papua New Guinea, which was thought to be an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean until World War II.  Then, the world discovered that there were tens of thousands of inhabitants there who still lived in the Stone Age.

Naturally. all kinds of scientists jumped at the chance to study these people who had never been corrupted by outside influences.  One of the scientists who arrived was Dr. Robert L. Klitzman whose lecture I greatly enjoyed at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process program this week.

Nowadays. the mesmerizing Dr.Klitzman is a  Professor of Psychiatry and Director of the Masters of Bioethics Program at Columbia University, but when he was still a student in the 1950s, he went to Papua New Guinea to study an epidemic of a  fatal neurological disease that the locals called kuru.

A Disturbing Video of a Kuru Victim/  You Might Not Want to Watch This.

The doctor explained that kuru is caused by weirdly folded proteins called prions that are as fatal as some viruses.  One of the scary things about prions is that the diseases they cause can have really long incubation periods – prions can hang out in the human body for 20 or even 40 years before disease appears. Typically, kuru would start with a headache, followed by tremors and increasing weakness until death.  The victims were almost exclusively women.

Dr. Klitzman studied precisely how the prions were being transmitted because it had been discovered that kuru was caused by cannibalism, particularly the ingestion of brains  (loaded with prions) at “feasts” that occurred when members of a group died. He actually interviewed people about who had partaken of whom and what they had feasted on.

More women than men contracted kuru because women were always the ones to eat decedents’ brains but they also fed bits of brain to children.  Thus some men also contracted kuru because they ate brains as youngsters. Did they cook the brains first? Yes and you can read more about that here.

Cannibalism is against the law in Papua New Guinea now and no one has died of kuru since 2005. Good news for the women of the island!

Dr Klitzman explained that prions cause other diseases that kill brain cells and thus make brains look spongy (“spongiform encephalopathies”). Sheep get scrapie, so-called because the prions make them try to scrape off their wool.

Until 1996, cows (mostly in the United Kingdom) were getting “mad cow disease” from eating prion-packed sheep.

Humans who ate mad cows may get Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a fatal, incurable, degenerative, neurological malady.  So far, the only suspected cases of Creutzfeldt–Jakob caused by eating mad cows (over 100 victims) have occurred in the United Kingdom and Canada but the American Red  Cross is not taking any chances.

A while ago I went to a blood drive and was turned away because I had lived in England for more than three months between 1980 and 1996 and thus I may have picked up prions at tea.  Ironically, I first went vegetarian in London in 1986 after too many meals with meaty surprises like kidneys with the steak and ox-tails in the stew, but it may have been too late.   Scientists suspect my blood is dangerous and sometimes when I forget a student’s name, I wonder whether prions from an old Wimpy burger are coming back to haunt me.







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