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Environmental toxin linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

A neurotoxic amino acid called b-N-methylamino-L-alanine or BMAA has been long associated with health risks. The toxin is produced by cyanobacteria and is also found in contained in cycad seeds. Cycads are found across much of the subtropical and tropical parts of the world.

A new study draws a connection between the toxin and the health of Chamorro villagers, who live on the Pacific Island of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands in Micronesia. It has been noticed that a characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease — neurofibrillary tangles and β–amyloid plaques — is found at a high level with the Chamorro people. This has been drawn out from an analysis of post-mortem examinations of the brain. Another interesting variable is with outsiders to the Chamorro. Here such people also show characteristics of the illness.

The odd pattern with outsiders as well as those born and bred on Guam suggests an environmental factor rather than a genetic issue, according Laboratory Roots’ summation of the study. Research has traced a possible cause to the Chamorro diet. This is rich in cycad seeds, which are used to prepare flour. Examples of foods include sweet or savory empanada (dough filled with a filling), and pancit, a noodle dish. In addition, the villagers eat animals known to feed on the seeds.

The research appears to be confirm a connection between BMAA and neurological disease. This has been confirmed through further research using vervet monkeys. The monkeys were given fruit injected with BMAA over a four-month period. By the end of the study, the monkeys had developed brain alterations, including the build-up of amyloid deposits. The alterations were similar to those spotted with the Chamorros people.

Further experiments aimed at blocking the effects of BMAA, using L-serine, and examinations on monkeys, found it is possible to block the effect of BMAA. Whether L-serine could be used as an anti-Alzheimer’s drug is uncertain at this stage.

The finding adds to other research linking the development of neurodegenerative diseases with toxins.

The research was led by Dr. Paul Alan Cox, at the Institute for EthnoMedicine, and the findings have been reported to the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. the paper is titled “Dietary exposure to an environmental toxin triggers neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits in the brain.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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