Campus News

Cyanobacteria and Human Health: Workshop on Merging Ecology, Epidemiology and Neurologic Disorders Aug. 4-6

Story posted July 21, 2011

There is mounting evidence to suggest that environmental factors play a major role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in collaboration with other specialists, have been studying clusters of ALS cases found in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont to determine if the disease can be linked to cyanobacterial blooms that produce a neurotoxin found in ALS patients’ brains.

Filamentous cyanobacterium Lyngbya forms mucilaginous floating mats in both fresh and marine waters. Image courtesy of Cyanosite.

“If the cyanobacterial toxin BMAA is a trigger for neurodegeneration, the implications are tremendous, both from a preventative and treatment perspective,” says Elijah Stommel, associate professor of neurology at Dartmouth Medical School.

“What’s more, there are many toxins produced by cyanobacteria that have important health and environmental implications.”

“Cyanobacterial blooms are proliferating world-wide and represent a serious threat to the use and sustainability of our freshwater resources,” says Dr. Hans Paerl of the Institute of Marine Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“These blooms are symptomatic of human nutrient over-enrichment and are taking advantage of regional and global climatic change, including warming and altered hydrology. Effective future management approaches must incorporate the effects of human-induced nutrients within the context of a changing climate.”

Doctors Stommel and Paerl join other researchers coming to Bowdoin August 4-6, 2011, to discuss the links between ALS and other neurologic disorders to cyanobacteria blooms in fresh and marine waters.

cyanobacteria bloom256.jpg
A large bloom of cyanobacteria of the genus Lyngbya in Guatemala’s Lake Atitlán. Simulated-natural-color image from November 22, 2009, acquired by the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra.

The three-day workshop brings together specialists in medicine, neurology, toxicology, epidemiology, ecology, oceanography and limnology from medical, academic, research, federal and state institutions from across the U.S. and abroad, to discuss the current state of understanding in these diverse fields as they relate to cyanobacterial blooms and human health.

“The hypothesis that cyanobacteria may be linked to ALS is yet unproven,” says Dr. Paul Alan Cox, director of the Institute of Ethnomedicine in Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“But studies by Dartmouth Medical School of clusters of ALS patients near lakes with cyanobacterial blooms may provide an important piece of the puzzle.”

Dr. Cox will give the keynote address Thursday, Aug. 4. His current research focuses on neurodegenerative illness with the goal of discovering new therapies for ALS and Alzheimer’s disease. Cox will present the history of ALS and the cyanobacteria connection.

The workshop will be preceded by an optional short course held Aug. 3.

Standard registration for the workshop is $200 and includes the short course and meals. Undergraduate students can attend free of charge; graduate student registration is $100. On-campus housing is available on a limited basis for $30 per night. The registration deadline is Friday, July 29.

More information about the workshop here.

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