The Emerging Science of BMAA

Can Cyanobacteria Contribute to Neurodegenerative Disease?

Wendee Holtcamp


Environ Health Perspect. 2012;120(3):a110-a116. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


In the late 1990s ethnobotanist Paul Alan Cox visited the indigenous Chamorro people of Guam, sleuthing for cancer cures in the lush rainforest. He soon stumbled upon troubling facts that would change the trajectory of his career, leading to major clues in understanding Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) and possibly other neurodegenerative diseases. Since that time, major breakthroughs in the fields of neurobiology, epidemiology, and ecology have led to an increased interest in an unlikely hypothesis: that β-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA)—a cyanobacterial neurotoxin found in contaminated seafood and shellfish, drinking water supplies, and recreational waters—may be a major factor in these diseases.

Last fall, writer Wendee Holtcamp visited Paul Cox's Institute for EthnoMedicine and Yellowstone National Park's Grand Prismatic Spring, named for the vividly colored cyanobacteria that live along the spring's edge. She also kayaked on Lake Houston to collect water and sediment, which Cox's group tested for BMAA. The results of that test were described in the January/February 2012 issue of Miller-McCune Magazine.55


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