Algal bloom linked to motor neurone disease

Toxins associated with blue-green algae blooms in waterways are being investigated as the potenti­al cause of the rapid growth of Australians dying from motor neurone disease.

Researchers working on a suspected MND cluster around the Riverina town of Griffith say blue-green algae could be the common environmental link in several cases.

MND causes the nerves that control muscles to malfunction, leading to system failure and an early death. There is no known cure or effective treatment.

Macquarie University professor of neurology Dominic Rowe travelled to Griffith last year with a colleague to investig­ate the appearance of a disproportionate number of MND cases. They took blood, hair and urine samples from MND sufferers from Griffith, Lake Cargelligo, Leeton and Wagga Wagga.

In 1986, one death in 500 was caused by the disease. It is now one in 180. “That has to be envir­onmental, it cannot be genetic,” Professor Rowe said.

Environmental factors have emerged as key in MND and other neurodegenerative diseases such as multiple Sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. MS, for example, is thought to be linked to a lack of sunshine, prompting clinical trials of vitamin D.

Blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, most often associated with nutrient run-off, produces a neurotoxic amino acid called methylamino-L-alanine, or BMAA.

Professor Rowe said examination of the Riverina cases and possible links to algae was a “work in progress” and complemented research being done elsewhere.

Researchers from the University of Technology, Sydney, and the Institute for Ethnomedicine in the US believe BMAA may be mis-incorporated by the body into neuroproteins.

In a 2013 research paper, they noted BMAA had previously been suggested as the cause of MND among consumers of shellfish in Chesapeake Bay, US soldiers deployed to the first Gulf War, and indigenous people in Guam who ate a specific cycad flour.

Studies in Europe and the US have linked an increased MND risk to proximity to water. “Unfortunately we don’t have the smoking gun and one of the theories that is being pursued is one of the toxins associated with blue-green algal blooms,” Professor Rowe said.

MND is responsible for a growing number of deaths in Australia — 795 in 2012 — and every day at least two people die of it and another two or more are diagnosed with it.

Professor Rowe said MND “kills fivefold more people in Australia than HIV/AIDS yet funding for HIV/AIDS research is 100-fold what it is for MND’’, he said. “This is a disease that destroys people in their prime.”


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