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Old 04-15-2007, 12:32 PM   #1
Default Could a botanist have the answer to Alzheimer's?


Posted on Tue, May. 10, 2005


Could a botanist have the answer to Alzheimer's?

A botanist is researching whether a toxin found in blue-green algae
could cause certain neurological diseases. But some are skeptical.



In an unusual scientific journey, an ethnobotanist is tracking a toxin
he believes could be a cause of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, Lou Gehrig's
and other baffling neurological diseases.

Doing research ordinarily done by other types of scientists, Paul Alan
Cox thinks he may have made a significant discovery: that the toxin is
produced by blue-green algae, the oldest and most pervasive organism on
the planet.

Cox and his nine collaborators found that 97 percent of all blue-green
algae, more commonly known as cyanobacteria, produce the neurotoxin,
according to their paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences. This ''suggests a potential for widespread human exposure,''
they wrote.

Cyanobacteria occur naturally in oceans, lakes and estuaries. The Red
Sea is named for a reddish cyanobacteria. When conditions are right,
the cyanobacteria explode into blooms, concentrating the toxins they
give off.

Much more investigation remains before anyone can say definitively the
cyanobacteria cause neurological disease and, if they do, how the
bacteria get from the algae into human brains.

No one knows exactly what causes neurodegenerative diseases; research
is focused on genetics and environment.

Some scientists are skeptical of Cox's theories.

''He's run with this hypothesis when the likelihood is that nobody can
replicate the data,'' said Dr. Daniel Perl, director of neuropathology
at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. ``I don't know what the hell
he's measuring.''

But the findings excite others, including Dr. Walter Bradley, head of
the department of neurology at the University of Miami. The university
is examining brain tissues to see if they contain the toxin.

''I believe if what Paul has found turns out to be correct, he is
likely to get the Nobel Prize. It may be the answer or one of the
answers to neurodegeneration,'' Bradley said.

Deborah Mash, who heads the brain endowment bank at UM, said the
testing began within the last four or five months. While hundreds of
tests must be done, Mash said the researchers detected the toxin in
brains of deceased people who had Alzheimer's and ALS (amyotrophic
lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease).

``We're confident our data are real. We think they're promising and
supportive of what [Cox] is saying.''


The story of Cox's research begins on the Pacific island of Guam, where
an extraordinarily high number of indigenous Chamorros suffered
degenerative symptoms: paralysis, impaired speech, eyes that saw
straight ahead but not up or down, weakness and dementia.

When Oliver Sacks wrote Island of the Color Blind (Knopf, $24) in 1996,
he devoted half of the book to the Guam story of neurological
disorders. In 2002, Sacks co-authored a paper with Cox about the
Chamorros eating bats in which the neurotoxin had magnified

Cox entered neurology as an outsider, with a doctorate in biology from
Harvard University and years of research as an ethnobotanist, studying
plants that indigenous people use in daily life, particularly for

He began pursuing his research in the mid-1990s, when it was known only
that Chamorros used flour made from cycads that had small amounts of
the cyanobacteria in their roots and seeds, but not enough toxin to
harm the people.

Cox went village to village to see what else the villagers ate besides
the cycad flour. He discovered the Chamorros considered bats a
delicacy. They ate them with such gusto that they caused one species to
go extinct and put a second on the endangered species list, after which
the neurodegenerative diseases began to diminish in the 1950s. No
Chamorros have developed the symptoms since 1960.

Dried museum remains of some of the Guam bats collected in the 1950s
were tested and found to have prodigious amounts of the toxin, Cox

Cox and other scientists next analyzed the brain tissue of the
islanders who died of the degenerative diseases and brain tissue of 15
Canadians as a control group. While the brain tissue of the islanders
tested positive, the surprising result was that two Canadian samples
turned up with the toxin, both in brains of people who died of
Alzheimer's disease.

A second small study was done on Canadian brain tissue from seven
Alzheimer's patients and one non-Alzheimer's control. Again the toxin
appeared, in six of the seven Alzheimer samples.

The toxin is a non-protein amino acid, BMAA or
B-N-methylamino-L-alanine, identified in 1967. ''There are only 20
amino acids that make up the proteins in everything from daisies to
elephants to people,'' Cox explained. BMAA is not one of the 20 amino
acids that make up proteins, but it has been discovered both as a free
amino acid in the body and bound to proteins.

''If a protein is a pearl necklace, and amino acids are individual
pearls, BMAA gets stuck in there as a square pearl,'' Cox said.

Cox hypothesizes that BMAA enters the food chain, eventually
accumulating in proteins, then is gradually released as proteins are
metabolized. Some BMAA ends up in the brain, free to damage the

''This is certainly very interesting science, and we are keeping our
eye on it,'' said Niles Frantz, at the Alzheimer's Association in
Chicago. ``At the same time, it is very preliminary research, and the
connection to Alzheimer's disease has not been proven.''

Perl, who was the neuropathologist for scientists preceding Cox in the
Guam work, has a brain bank of Chamorro samples. ''I've been working on
this for 25 years, and I'd love to find the answer,'' he said, noting
there could be ``a number of things he could be seeing.''

John Hardy, chief of the laboratory of neurogenetics for the National
Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., also is skeptical. ``There is no
trail of evidence to say BMAA can cause tangle diseases. It's just an
idea, in my view.''

The Institute for Ethnomedicine, affiliated with the National Tropical
Botanical Garden, has funded Cox's research. He is on leave as director
of the National Tropical Botanical Garden. He previewed his latest
findings at The Kampong in Coconut Grove in January.

''We're afraid all people could be exposed to low levels [of BMAA],''
he said. ``What once was believed to occur only on Guam might be more

  Reply With Quote
Old 04-15-2007, 12:32 PM   #2
John Husvar
Default Re: Could a botanist have the answer to Alzheimer's?

In article <1115712526.863751.194030@f14g2000cwb.googlegroups .com>,
"Cowboy" <msbuckaroo@hotmail.com> wrote:


> Some scientists are skeptical of Cox's theories.

Well, that's what they get paid for, being skeptical.

> ''He's run with this hypothesis when the likelihood is that nobody can
> replicate the data,'' said Dr. Daniel Perl, director of neuropathology
> at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. ``I don't know what the hell
> he's measuring.''

Ummmmm -- One could do a Riki Tiki Tavi and run and find out?

So what's wrong with running with an hypothesis? It's better than
ignoring a feature that appears to be common to many cases.

Even if it doesn't pan out, it's just as valuable to science to falsify
a hypothesis as to verify it. Keeps folks from wasting a lot of time.
Sometimes a second look at a falsified hypothesis can be fruitful if the
second look is at something that appears to have been overlooked.

Cox seems enthusiastic about his findings as do some others. Time and
more research will tell whether it's justified enthusiasm.
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Old 04-15-2007, 12:34 PM   #3
Default Re: Could a botanist have the answer to Alzheimer's?

I found this article very interesting. The diseases mentioned in it caught
my attention, since there is active research going on in the study of
"protein folding". This subject has been suggested as something that should
be investigated in those very same neurological disorders (in addition to

I am doing my part by allowing my PC's unused CPU cycles, along with
thousands of others in a distributed computing effort to simulate the
folding processes.

I don't understand it very well, but there is good information about this
fascinating project and how you can help at the site below.



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