What does a map plotting patients with ALS look like? One such map shows that lakes with cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, may be linked to  ALS.

Dr. Elijah Stommel and Dr. Tracie Caller of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center found that people living around a freshwater lake that has frequent blooms of cyanobacteria are up 25 times more likely than the general population to develop ALS.

Cyanobacteria is a life form, closely related to regular bacteria, that lives in water.  The cyanobacteria can multiply under the right conditions and create a whole colony that can turn clear water into cloudy water with blue-green or even reddish-brown algae or scum.  The water may have a thin “oily” film similar to what a paint spill may look like.  Fortunately, a bloom with a high population of cyanobacteria cannot survive for very long.  They typically die after one or two weeks.  Another bloom can replace the first one if water conditions remain favorable for growth.

Some cyanobacterial blooms are not toxic, but some produce BMAA, a nerve toxin that can affect the brain.  A report in the Proceedings of the British Royal Society published on Jan 20, 2016 shows in animals that chronic exposure to the toxin BMAA from cyanobacteria causes “brain tangles,” which can lead to ALS related symptoms and other neurodegenerative illnesses.

Lead author of the study, Paul Cox, Ph.D. is the Director of the Institute for Ethnomedicine.  His current research is focused on neurodegenerative illness with the goal of discovering new therapies for ALS.  

The recent publication also shows that large doses of the dietary amino acid called L-serine can reduce the risk of BMAA exposure.  The L-serine works by “outcompeting” against low levels of BMAA in the body, preventing it from becoming incorporated into proteins.  The study was conducted on vervet monkeys, not humans, but offers reasonable proof of the BMAA link, which has been suspected before.

ALS is likely the result of a combination of several factors, that when they run together, create certain symptoms in the body.  It’s like creating the perfect storm.  This environmental neurotoxin BMAA seems to be one of the contributing factors.  Finding one causative piece of the ALS puzzle helps move forward to the cure.  
The scientific BMAA publication can be found here:Dietary exposure to an environmental toxin triggers neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits in the brain

About the Author:

Lori Wangsgard
Lori is a health educator and a family member of an ALS patient. Her focus with ALS Crowd is to collect and share current information in an easy to understand way.
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