Last week we were learning about diseases related to improper protein folding (proteins are chains of amino acids that fold into particular structures to work properly). There is a group of diseases in which amyloid fibrils are formed; some of these diseases have been found to be caused by infectious proteins called prions. In case you’re wondering WTF this has to do with anything else in this blog, please be patient.
Prions are somewhat famous when mad cow disease was discovered years ago in the UK, but it turns out not only cattle and people eating beef from sick animals are screwed, because prions can infect several species, including humans. In class, we learned about kuru, a disease that affects a tribe from Papua New Guinea who eat deceased relatives as part of their funerary rituals. The fact is that it was observed that the incidence of the disease in women was way higher than in men because women ate the brains (which carried most of the infection) and the few men who participated in these rituals ate only the spinal cords. A government educational program managed to reduce cannibalism and the number of cases in women dropped big time.
Source: http://wiki.ggc.usg.edu/images/a/a0/KuruGraphs.png, originally from Gajdusek, D. Carleton. “Unconventional Viruses and the Origin and Disappearance of Kuru.” Science. 1977; 197: 944-59.
Given my ancestral health bias, I found this fascinating because this, to me, is an indication that the members of this tribe found in brains a source for the omega-3 fatty acids required for proper neurological development of their children, and that these organs were reserved for the population that needed them the most (women in reproductive age).
However, the lecturer said “women ate the brains, men ate the ‘good bits'”. He didn’t mention the spinal cords (and I don’t know if he was aware of that) and I know this was not a nutrition lecture but I think the Western “civilised” conventional wisdom is still extremely biased against organ meats. Of course, eating prion-infected organs of any kind is unfortunate and dumb if there’s any risk of contamination (and I certainly don’t advocate cannibalism!), but I think it’s about time we start eating more nose-to-tail to increase both nutritional value and sustainability.
[Of course my theory about omega-3 and brain development can be completely wrong and maybe the PNGs are extremely sexists and fed women brains to make them “more intelligent”. But I like to think that there’s wisdom underlying most traditional customs].