Environmental Toxins Linked To Increased Risk Of Neurodegenerative Illnesses

First Posted: Jan 24, 2016 11:49 PM EST

New findings published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggest that exposure to an environmental toxin that's linked to algae blooms could increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.

Researchers at the non-profit, EthnoMedicine and the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank, found that individuals who were chemically exposed to the neurotoxin BMAA that's found in some dangerous algal blooms showed an increased risk of developing a neurodegenerative illnesses, including dementia, ALS and Parkinson's disease.

"Our field work was sort of like reading an Agatha Christie novel. Who is the murderer?" said lead author of the study, Paul Alan Cox, Ph.D., who is an ethnobotanist at the Institute for EthnoMedicine, in a news release. "We knew that other peoples on Guam, including the Filipinos, the Caroline islanders, U.S. military personnel, and expatriate Japanese did not get the disease, only the Chamorro villagers. So as ethnobotanists, we spent our time in the villages, rather than in the clinic, trying to figure out who the hidden killer is."

During the study, researchers carried out two experiments--each 140 days long, on vervet monkeys. In the first experiment, they fed the monkeys one of three diets: fruits with BMAA, fruits without BMAA and equal parts fruits with BMAA and a dietary amino acid known as L-serine.

While monkeys that did not have exposure to BMAA showed no signs of neuropathology, those who just ate toxin-laced fruits developed neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits--both of which show early signs of Alzheimer's. The others who had a combination of fruits and fruits with BMAA had a lower density of tangles, researchers say.

During the second experiment, researchers only changed the dosages of the toxin. There, findings showed that monkeys who ate BMAA still had tangles and amyloid deposits in their brain tissues following 140 days. 

"This study takes a leap forward in showing causality -- that BMAA causes disease," said study co-author, Deborah Mash, Ph.D., director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank. "The tangles and amyloid deposits produced were nearly identical to those found in the brain tissue of the Pacific Islanders who died from the Alzheimer's-like disease."

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