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May 18, 2009 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Why you really shouldn’t eat braaaains

As you, being a clever Victoria student, are probably well aware, the media’s coverage of the recent swine flu outbreak has been totally out of proportion to the actual threat of the virus. The swine flu virus, which originated from—to paraphrase Charlton Heston—damn dirty pigs, has symptoms largely similar to those normally seen in influenza, which have been primarily mild in the developed world (although more severe in Mexico, where the human form of the virus originated). However, it isn’t unusual that something relatively mild in the developed world can be deadly in the developing world—diarrhoea is a massive killer of children in sub-Saharan Africa.

That’s not to say that influenza is a walk in the park, especially for the very young or old, or those with a chronic illness, for whom the flu can be quite serious. Especially virulent strains of the flu can be devastating: the 1918 flu pandemic saw a third of the world’s population of 1.5 billion infected, and up to 100 million killed. However, not only was this strain of influenza much more virulent than the current swine flu, the medical science of 1918 was far less advanced than it is today; for example, most deaths were caused by a secondary infection of bacterial pneumonia (penicillin was not discovered until 1928).

But enough of that! You’re probably sick to death (pun totally intended) of old H1N1, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to discuss another important health issue: the folly of eating human brains.

Now, there may be some legal and/or moral ‘difficulties’ when it comes to eating people’s brains (the gravity and extent of which probably rather depends on how you procure said brains in the first place), but as this column isn’t called Law or Philosophy, we don’t have to consider these here. Hurrah! What you may not know is that eating the brains of your fellow human beings is also seriously risky when it comes to your health.

That eating brains should involve health risks might come as a surprise to you—after all, people’s brains are made of a whole lot of stuff that’s actually required in a healthy diet. It’s harder to find nutritional information about the human brain than you might think, but the human brain is largely made up of fats, proteins and water, with salts, nucleic acids, and essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. Add in a source of carbohydrates and you’re sorted! Or so you might think…

Kuru is the cute-sounding name of the anything-but-cute brain disease that afflicted the Fore people of the highlands of Papua New Guinea up until around the mid-twentieth century. Kuru causes a range of neurological and physical symptoms including headaches, joint pain, disordered coordination and movement, shaking, outbreaks of uncontrolled laughter, and ultimately, death.

Kuru is thought to have been spread by the funeral rituals of the Fore people, in which the family of the deceased ate the dearly departed, and caused by misfolded proteins, or ‘prions’ in the cells of the brain tissue. It wasn’t the brain eating per se that transmitted the disease, but the handling of the diseased tissue, which allowed the prions to reach the victims’ subcutanous tissue.

‘Prion’ is the name given to infectious, misfolded proteins, which cause degenerative brain diseases like scrapie, mad cow disease, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. A common characteristic of prion diseases is a long incubation period (up to years and even decades in the human prion diseases). This means that there is a long period in which the infected person does not show any symptoms.

Proteins are found in almost every cell of the human body, and are essential for almost everything humans (and all other organsims) do. They help cells communicate and move, speed up chemical reactions, and help defend the body against foreign substances. So when the proteins become the pathogens (disease-causing agent), it’s no good thing.

Scientists were initially baffled about how prions might multiply, given that a prion is merely a misfolded protein, and does not contain RNA or DNA (which is necessary for self-replication). The now widely accepted theory is that prions multiply in number by entering the cells containing the normal form of the protein, where the prion induces other, normal, proteins to mishape into the prion form via contact. The newly-made prions contact other normal proteins, which misshape into prions, and so on, increasing the number of disease-causing prions in the infected individual.

There is currently no cure for diseases caused by prions.

So, unless you’re a member of the shuffling horde, or a fan of really high-stakes steak, you should probably steer clear of eating human brains and the ghastly diseases it can entail, and stick to the offal of other species. Of course, as Victoria students, you’re brainy enough to start with. Or, er, another platitude that’s a little less cringe-inducing.


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