Laughing Death (Kuru)

Kuru (Laughing Death) is a rare, fatal, neurodegenerative disorder, which occurred almost exclusively in New Guinea aborigines of Fore tribe and first discovered in the early 20th century. The disease is caused by abnormally folded prion proteins. The main symptoms include loss of coordination and tremors.

The disorder was described in 1957 by the Australian doctor Zigasom and American researcher Carleton Gajdusek.

The word “Kuru” in the language of the Fore tribe has two meanings – “trembling” and “deterioration”. One of the symptoms of kuru is tremors. Also, it got a name “laughing death” as some of the patients were noticed to have a strange smile.

Members of the Fore tribe believed that the disease is the result of the evil eye made by an alien shaman.

It was proved that people get the disease because of performing cannibalism for funeral rituals. The Fore people believe that they get intellect and other dignities of person who died. This ritual was mostly conducted by women and children that’s why the disorder was more found in them.

Kuru does not have known cure. It is fatal and usually lasts around one year.

kuruLaughing death is the most typical example of transmissible prion diseases in humans – spongiform encephalopathies. It is the study of kuru has formed the concept of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy of a human.


  • loss of coordination
  • tremors
  • muscle twitching
  • impulsive movements of the head, sometimes accompanied by a smile
  • walking difficulties, eating difficulties
  • behavioral and mood changes
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • dementia
  • runny nose
  • cough
  • fever
  • joint pain in legs

Kuru proceeds in three stages. The first stage is characterized by a headache and joint pain. Also, a person may feel a loss of body control. In the second stage, a person cannot walk. The most common symptoms as tremors and involuntary jerks start to occur. During the third stage, a patient is not able to speak and get dementia. In this stage, people have difficulty to eat and swallow.


Kuru was transmitted due to ritualistic cannibalism. The Fore people ate the body parts of their dead relatives. The brain is the most infectious organ that contains infectious agent prion. Usually, women and children consumed brain and were at higher risk to get the disease than men who ate muscles.


Kuru or laughing death is diagnosed by performing a neurological examination, It includes medical history, neurological function and blood tests (thyroid, liver and kidney function, folic acid level) for excluding other conditions.

Also, such tests and EMG (electroencephalogram) and MRI can help to check the electrical activity in a brain.


There is no treatment of the disorder.