“The medical version of the world’s hardest math problem”.

Photo by Nat Tarbox | flickr.com

Cyanobacterial neurotoxin. Neurodegenerative disease. Contamination.

Who would have imagined that these three terms would leave neurologists and nutritional anthropologists searching for the answer to the medical version of the world’s hardest math problem?

It may be hard to comprehend, but the journey to uncover the truth falls on a long and convoluted path. It all began when enthnobotanist Paul Alan Cox visited the Indigenous people of Gaum to explore the rainforest on a quest to conquer cancer. Shortly after arriving, his career took a pivotal turn and he found himself following a new trail of clues.

He began trying to connect the dots between cyanobacterial neurotoxins, neurodegenerative disease, and contamination.

It is undeniable that he played a role in pioneering the interest within this field. Since then, there have been major scientific developments in the fields of neurobiology, epidemiology, and ecology.

This research has led to the unlikely hypothesis that B-methylamino-L-alanine  (BMAA), a cyanobacterial neurotoxin found in contaminated shellfish and drinking water may be a major contributing factor in neurodegenerative diseases.  In fact, lab tests revealed that BMAA causes convulsions in chicks and rats and damaged neurons in rats and mice.  

Because cyanobacteria photosynthesize, scientists once classified them as algae (and many people still refer to them as blue-green algae). Modern genetics however, reveals a distinct evolutionary lineage. Cyanobacteria either form symbiotic relationships with other organisms or live alone in fresh and marine waters, where they can erupt in sprawling and often toxic blooms associated with high nutrient inputs. They also are found in desert crusts, where they spring to life with seasonal rains.

The incidence of cyanobacterial blooms have increased worldwide and may grow even more widespread with warming climates.  This widened presence of cyanobacteria is alarming within the scientific community after the suggestion that they may be partially responsible for Alzheimer’s Disease and Huntington’s disease. We don't fully understand the minute details, but many scientists have pledged to figure it out.  

This is where the environmental link comes into play.

We don't know exact description of how these three factors are linked, but we do know that the precautionary principle tells us that we shouldn't sit it out.

In fact, it has been proven over and over again that no matter how hard we try to separate our mental, physical and spiritual health from the overall health of the earth..it cannot be done. The health of the global ecosystem is integral to health of those who call it home.  These gene-environment interactions cannot be escaped.  

So what is being done? Well, most plans suggest that we must raise awareness amongst our communities about the presence of these cyanobacterial toxins in recreation, agriculture, aquaculture, and drinking water supplies. Currently, this is being achieved via workshops, seminars, handbooks, and other professional international and local projects. Researchers argue that these actions also need to be implemented in developing countries. 

In addition, multidisciplinary working groups have been established, however strict guidelines that aim to prevent cyanobacterial blooms still need to be implemented, followed, and enforced.

After all, policies can only be implemented if there is knowledge about why they are needed.