Kuru is a very rare disease. It is caused by an infectious protein (prion) found in contaminated human brain tissue.
Kuru is found among people from New Guinea who practiced a form of cannibalism in which they ate the brains of dead people as part of a funeral ritual. This practice stopped in 1960, but cases of kuru were reported for many years afterward because the disease has a long incubation period.
Kuru causes brain and nervous system changes similar to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Similar diseases appear in cows as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also called mad cow disease.
The main risk factor for kuru is eating human brain tissue, which can contain the infectious particles.
Bosque PJ, Tyler KL. Prions and prion diseases of the central nervous system (transmissible neurodegenerative diseases). In: Mandell GL, Bennett JE, Dolan R, eds. Mandell, Douglas, and Bennett's Principles and Practice of Infectious Diseases. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill-Livingstone; 2009:chap 178.
Jatin M. Vyas, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor in Medicine, Harvard Medical School; Assistant in Medicine, Division of Infectious Disease, Department of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital. Also reviewed by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, David R. Eltz, Stephanie Slon, and Nissi Wang.