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Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Jessica

Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, is a neurodegenerative disease that strikes middle-aged, seemingly healthy people, leading to paralysis and eventually death within a few years of diagnosis.

Possible Causes of Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Early clues as to the cause of ALS showed up in Guam about 50 years ago, when the island population was found to have rates of ALS 100 times greater than the rates in the rest of the world. A neurotoxin, BMAA, was identified and found in those who had died of the disease. Similar findings in ALS victims in Florida, Canada, and the Pacific Northwest were later made. And Lou Gehrig’s disease was also presenting at rates up to 25 times greater in people living near lakes in New Hampshire, where some families were eating fish several times per week. Higher amounts of BMAA were found in the hair of people living with ALS, compared to controls. 

Seafood was examined, and BMAA was found in Floridian seafood (freshwater and shellfish), while two out of three blue crabs from the Chesapeake Bay tested positive for BMAA.

BMAA is thought to be made by blue-green algae, which then ends up in the seafood that people eat. It is possible that BMAA and mercury might actually have a synergistic toxic effect. And algae blooms have been increasing, possibly due to the growth of industrialized agriculture: more sewage, fertilizer, and manure run-offs promote the growth of algae.

BMAA has also been associated with sporadic Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

Possible Protections Against Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Because almost all blue-green algae is thought to contain BMAA or other similar neurotoxins, it is recommended to avoid blue-green algae and Spirulina supplements, which are marketed to help with things such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, and allergies. Seafood that feeds on algae therefore carries the neurotoxins as well.

Also, the damage of astrocytes, which are the most abundant cells in the brain, have been associated with the development of ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases; however, bean extracts have been shown to be potentially protective of astrocytes. Beans as part of a whole-foods, plant-based diet could be playing a role in trying to stave off Lou Gehrig’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

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