Kuru is a disease of the nervous system that is extremely rare today, but that once was common among people in certain tribes in Papua, New Guinea, who practiced cannibalism.
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Mystery in New Guinea
In the 1950s, a strange disease of the nervous system was killing people in certain tribes in the highlands of New Guinea, an island north of Australia in the Pacific Ocean. An American scientist named Daniel Carleton Gajdusek traveled to New Guinea to study the disease, which the people there called kuru. Eventually, he traced the problem to canni-balism, the eating of human flesh by another human. In this case, canni-balism took the form of a ritual in which people ate the uncooked brains of relatives who had died. Today, those New Guinea tribes no longer practice this ritual, and kuru has almost vanished.
Gajdusek thought that kuru was passed from a dead person's brain to a living person by a slow virus, a virus that takes years to cause symptoms. Most scientists no longer believe this theory, however. Instead, most now think that kuru is caused by a prion, a type of protein that can cause infection. Kuru belongs to a group of human and animal diseases of the brain, known as transmissible spongiform (SPUN-ji-form) enceph-alopathies (en-sef-a-LOP-a-theez), that may be caused by prions. The word "spongiform" refers to the way infected brains become filled with holes until they look like sponges under a microscope. The most common such disease in humans is Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
What Are the Symptoms?
People with kuru have trouble controlling their movements, and this problem gets worse over time. Their arms and legs may appear stiff, or they may have rapid muscle spasms. Occasionally, their muscles may twitch or jerk uncontrollably, or their fingers, hands, toes, and feet may move in a slow, writhing motion. As the disease gets worse, people with kuru may start to lose their mental abilities, such as thought, memory, and concentration. Death usually occurs within 3 to 12 months. Kuru is extremely rare today, but it still fascinates scientists who are studying related diseases.