Gajdusek codiscovered and provided the first medical description of a unique central nervous system disorder occurring only among the Fore people of New Guinea and known by them as kuru ("trembling"). Living among the Fore, studying their language and culture, and performing autopsies on kuru victims, Gajdusek came to the conclusion that the disease was transmitted in the ritualistic eating of the brains of the deceased, a Fore funeral custom. Gajdusek became the head of laboratories for virological and neurological research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1958. After years of further research, much of it conducted with his NIH colleague Clarence Gibbs, Jr., he postulated that the delayed onset of the disease could be attributed to a virus capable of extremely slow action or, perhaps, having the ability to remain dormant for years.
Gajdusek's study had significant implications for research into the causes of another degenerative brain disease, called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. Subsequent research suggests that these diseases are caused not by viruses but rather by unusual infectious agents called prions.
In addition to his work in virology, Gajdusek was an expert in the
fields of learning and behaviour, child growth and development in primitive
cultures, genetics, immunology, and neurological patterning and learning.
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