Dinner with Cannibals

Dear Hungry Readers,

When I was a little girl, Beau allowed me to watch very little television. Shows that made the acceptable list were The Waltons and Firing Line. You get the picture: Good stories of families making their way in the world, augmented with a good dose of right-wing conservatives talking shop.

But there were times also when I was required to watch “the idiot box,” as Beau called it.  Our world stopped—-dinner literally put on the back-burner—-for any PBS documentary or National Geographic special about cannibalism.

Cannibalism fascinated Beau for many reasons. But because he was a neurologist, he worried about the consequences of people eating uncooked brains–the human or animal kind. He knew, from his studies, that eating raw gray matter could cause your own mind to diminish.

Transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) were on Beau’s radar long before Mad Cow Disease became a household word.

TSEs, also known as prion diseases, are a group of progressive conditions that affect the brain and nervous system of many animals, including humans. Mental and physical abilities deteriorate as tiny holes appear in the cortex causing it to appear like a sponge (hence ‘spongiform’). The disorders cause impairment of brain function, including memory changes, personality changes and problems with movement that worsen over time.

I know that Beau feared TSEs, in particular, because their symptoms are so similar to Alzheimer’s disease. In fact, the families with AD in Colombia that I follow and support, have a form of Alzheimer’s that presents like Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (Mad Cow disease in humans). Researchers these days are closely studying the genes of both diseases to better understand their origin and development.

I may have been the only kid who was warned, repeatedly, by her father NOT TO EAT ANY BRAIN OF ANY ANIMAL.

Part of me would have much rather been watching Happy Days and eating junk food with my friends. But even as a kid, in the midst of a very odd upbringing, I knew that Beau, and his seemingly incomprehensible interests, was magical and mind expanding.

And that’s why watching his mind waste away, and then his body, was so devastating.



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