Seeking environmental causes of neurodegenerative disease and envisioning primary prevention

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Abstract

Pathological changes of the aging brain are expressed in a range of neurodegenerative disorders that will impact increasing numbers of people across the globe. Research on the causes of these disorders has focused heavily on genetics, and strategies for prevention envision drug-induced slowing or arresting disease advance before its clinical appearance. We discuss a strategic shift that seeks to identify the environmental causes or contributions to neurodegeneration, and the vision of primary disease prevention by removing or controlling exposure to culpable agents. The plausibility of this approach is illustrated by the prototypical neurodegenerative disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and parkinsonism-dementia complex (ALS-PDC). This often-familial long-latency disease, once thought to be an inherited genetic disorder but now known to have a predominant or exclusive environmental origin, is in the process of disappearing from the three heavily affected populations, namely Chamorros of Guam and Rota, Japanese residents of Kii Peninsula, Honshu, and Auyu and Jaqai linguistic groups on the island of New Guinea in West Papua, Indonesia. Exposure via traditional food and/or medicine (the only common exposure in all three geographic isolates) to one or more neurotoxins in seed of cycad plants is the most plausible if yet unproven etiology. Neurotoxin dosage and/or subject age at exposure might explain the stratified epidemic of neurodegenerative disease on Guam in which high-incidence ALS peaked and declined before that of PD, only to be replaced today by a dementing disorder comparable to Alzheimer's disease. Exposure to the Guam environment is also linked to the delayed development of ALS among a subset of Chamorro and non-Chamorro Gulf War/Era veterans, a summary of which is reported here for the first time. Lessons learned from this study and from 65 years of research on ALS-PDC include the exceptional value of initial, field-based informal investigation of disease-affected individuals and communities, the results of which can provide an invaluable guide to steer cogent epidemiological and laboratory-based research.

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