A new study published today by the Royal Society of London indicates that chronic exposure to an environmental toxin in polluted lakes and rivers may increase the risk of neurological disease.

Conducted by scientists at the Institute for EthnoMedicine, a non-profit medical research organization in Jackson Hole, the study suggests that exposure to the neurotoxin BMAA, which is found in some harmful algal blooms, can trigger ALS and other neurodegenerative illnesses in vulnerable individuals.

"We know that neurodegenerative diseases like ALS and Alzheimer's are probably caused by multiple things, but it's hard to really explore that unless you have a population that's at high risk," said Dr. Tracie Caller, a neurologist at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. "There's been a lot of debates and theories flying back and forth, but Paul Cox and his lab pursued this idea that there were cyanobacterial toxins in many of the dietary components of the people in Guam."

Brain tangles and amyloid deposits are the hallmarks of both Alzheimer’s disease and an unusual illness suffered by Chamorro villagers on the Pacific Island of Guam, whose diet is contaminated by BMAA.

Pacific Islanders with this unusual condition also suffer from dementia and symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s.

"Our findings show that chronic exposure to BMAA can trigger Alzheimer’s-like brain tangles and amyloid deposits," said Dr. Paul Cox, an ethnobotanist at the Institute for EthnoMedicine and lead author of the study. "As far as we are aware, this is the first time researchers have been able to successfully replicate brain tangles and amyloid deposits in an animal model through exposure to an environmental toxin."

"My fondest hope would be for this new research direction to lead to novel therapies for ALS, Alzheimer's and other neurodegenerative diseases," said Dr. Caller.

Joy Greenwald, Townsquare Media