In the highlands of Papua New Guinea, villagers have an unusual practice: women and children ritualistically consume the brains of dead relatives. This practice can lead to a brain disease called kuru, which once wiped out entire generations of women; yet according to researchers from the University College London Institute, women with a protective gene could survive to an old age, while women without it died of kuru. It could lead to treatment for similar brain-wasting conditions, like mad cow disease, Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease, and others, all of which are fatal and incurable, causing spongy holes in the brain. In the study, Dr. Simon Mead looked at over 3,000 Papuans, including 709 who’d participated in these cannibalistic feasts. Of them, 152 had died of kuru. They found a gene mutation, called G127v, that protected people from kuru. Only those who survived after eating brains had the gene, causing experts to believed the mutation evolved because of the selective pressure caused by eating brains. “It is remarkable how few definite examples there are that we can really link with a clear history of a disease or an event. It was such a devastating disease and well-documented … and we can now see the effects of this genetically,” Mead said. He hopes it could lead to treatments for CJD, which occurs randomly in about one in a million people.