By Tessa Berenson
June 11, 2015

It turns out eating human brains can kill you. But it could also save you from brain disease.

The Fore, a tribe in Papua New Guinea, used to eat the dead at funerals, the Washington Post reports; the men would eat the flesh, and the women and children would eat the brains. But about 2% of the population was dying each year from a disease caused by a molecule in the brain, so in the 1950s the cannibalism was outlawed.

However, a new study published in Nature has isolated what is perhaps a positive side effect of human brain consumption: some Fore have developed a gene that protects them from prions, a form of protein that is related to brain diseases including mad cow and forms of dementia.

The authors of the study say that learning more about this gene could contribute to greater understanding of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Write to Tessa Berenson at tessa.berenson@time.com.

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