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Studies of Gulf War Toxins by former WCM-Q Professor Highlighted in New Research Breakthrough

Doha – January 2016: One decade after returning from deployment to the First Gulf War, some U.S. military personnel started coming down with the unusual paralytic symptoms of ALS at twice the incidence rate of those who received the same training but were not dispatched to the Gulf.

Former Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) Professor Renee Richer, now of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette, thinks she knows why. During her eight years as Associate Professor of Biology at WCM-Q, Dr. Richer found that flat plains in the Gulf deserts are not devoid of life, but are covered with dried cyanobacteria crusts waiting for winter rain to complete their life cycle. Cyanobacteria are the oldest living bacteria on earth, that normally live in water, but can thrive in a multitude of environments. If these soil crusts in the desert are disturbed by an off-road military vehicle or tank tread, the dust carries a toxic load of BMAA.

A new study published by the Royal Society of London in the biological research journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, indicates that chronic exposure to the environmental toxin BMAA may increase risk of neurodegenerative illness. Conducted by scientists at the Institute for EthnoMedicine, a non-profit medical research organization in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank, the report indicates that exposure to BMAA, can trigger ALS and other neurodegenerative illnesses in vulnerable individuals. These illnesses cause a degeneration of the nervous system, especially the neurons in the brain.

Brain tangles and amyloid deposits are the hallmarks of both Alzheimer’s disease and also of an unusual illness suffered by villagers on the Pacific Island of Guam. Pacific Islanders with this unusual condition suffer from dementia and symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and Parkinson’s disease. The diet of the Chamorro people is contaminated by the environmental toxin, BMAA.

The cause of neurodegenerative disease remains largely unknown, and the role of environmental factors in these illnesses is poorly understood. However, scientists have long suspected a link between BMAA, a neurotoxin found in some harmful algal blooms, and also in the brains of people suffering from ALS and Alzheimer’s disease. But today’s announcement provides a new level of proof.

“Our findings show that chronic exposure to BMAA can trigger Alzheimer’s-like brain tangles and amyloid deposits,” said Paul Alan Cox, Ph.D., 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.”

When Professor Richer first met Cox in the deserts of Qatar during her time at WCM-Q, she was intrigued with his hypothesis of inhaled BMAA-dust as an environmental trigger for ALS. Together with her WCM-Q postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Aspa D. Chatziefthimiou, Dr. Richer began an extensive survey of toxins in desert crusts.

“We were astonished that up to 87% of the deserts of Qatar are covered with cyanobacterial crusts,” she said. “Even more concerning was our discovery that the toxins they produce accumulate in the desert soil beneath them.” The scientists felt there was a link, but the missing puzzle piece was an animal model showing that exposure to BMAA could produce neurodegenerative illness.

In the research findings just announced in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, scientists conducted two separate experiments on vervets. In the first experiment, vervets were fed fruit that was dosed with BMAA for 140 days. All of the animals developed neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits that were similar to the Pacific Islanders who died from the disease. However, vervets that were fed an equal amount of L-BMAA, but with the addition of the dietary amino acid, L-serine, had a reduced density of tangles. Vervets fed a placebo dose did not develop this neuropathology.

A second experiment was conducted, which added a BMAA dose closer to the amount the Chamorro villagers would be exposed to over a lifetime. The first group of vervets received fruit containing L-BMAA, the second group received fruit containing one-tenth of the regular dose of L-BMAA, the third group received fruit containing equal amounts of L-BMAA and L-serine, and the fourth group received fruit containing a placebo. After 140 days, tangles and amyloid deposits were found in the brain tissues of all of the vervets who consumed BMAA.

“This study takes a leap forward in showing causality—that BMAA causes disease,” said Deborah Mash, Ph.D., director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank and co-author of the study. “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.”

The discoveries are important because they have implications for populations in areas where cyanobacteria blooms are common, such as Qatar, the wider Gulf region and also Marinette, Wisconsin, which lies on the short of Lake Michigan and close to Lake Winnebago.

Dr. Richer added: “These new results suggest that water quality may be an important issue to now address in terms of neurological health.”

The parts of the research conducted by Dr. Richer in Qatar were made possible by NPRP grant 4-775-1-116 from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of Qatar Foundation). The statements made herein are solely the responsibility of the author[s].

Dr. Renee Richer is an assistant professor of biology at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette. She previously taught biology at Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar as an associate professor for eight years. Dr. Richer is also a member of the consortium formed by the Institute for EthnoMedicine, made up of 50 scientists operating in 28 institutions across 10 countries. The Institute is a non-profit research organization dedicated to discovering new cures for neurodegenerative diseases from studies of indigenous peoples.

For Media Inquires:
Hanan Lakkis – Media Relations Manager
Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar
Education City, Qatar Foundation
PO Box 24144
T: +974 4492 8661


Credit: John Samples

Cox PA, Davis DA, Mash DC, Metcalf JS, Banack SA. 2016. Dietary exposure to an environmental toxin triggers neurofibrillary tangles and amyloid deposits in the brain. Proc. R. Soc. B 283: 20152397

Chatziefthimiou AD, Metcalf JS, Powell JT, Glover WB, Banack SA, Roger Darham S, Richer R. 2016. Presence of Cyanobacteria and Cyanotoxins in Drinking Water Impoundments in Desert Environments. Toxicon. 114: 75-84.
Toxins in Qatar’s Desert Increase Risk of Alzheimer’s.