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Spotlight on research: looking for environmental triggers for MND

Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) form blooms and scums on waterways around the world.  Blue-green algae can release a chemical known as Β-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), which has been implicated as an environmental toxin that may cause MND in some patients. In the USA, hot spots of MND have been linked to living close to lakes with frequent algal blooms. 

Science in brief
Associate Professor Kenneth Rodgers and colleagues investigated ways in which BMAA could harm neurones. The researchers discovered that BMAA competed with the natural nutrient L-serine leading to damage to critical proteins in neurones. These findings led to a Phase I clinical trial conducted in the USA by Dr Paul Cox and colleagues to determine the safety of L-serine in MND patients, the results of which were published in February 2017. This initial trial showed that high doses of L-serine were protective and, based on these positive results, the study has now been approved for a Phase IIa clinical trial. 

A combination of environmental and lifestyle factors interacting with genes likely contribute to the development of MND. Only about 5 to 10 per cent of MND runs in families. Sporadic MND accounts for about 90 to 95 per cent of people with MND, where only one person in a family has the disease and the causes are unknown. 

Identifying environmental factors linked to complex diseases like MND can be challenging. This research built on increasing evidence implicating BMAA exposure as a risk factor for the development of MND, and has provided the foundation for a clinical trial that is investigating the use of L-serine to halt or reverse the neurological damage caused by BMAA.

Next steps
Associate Professor Rodgers, collaborator Professor Gilles Guillemin and their teams are currently carrying out an environmental survey of the distribution of BMAA in Australian freshwater. They are trying to link exposure to BMAA as well as a range of environmental toxins, including pesticides and heavy metals to an increased risk of MND. 

Article sourced from MND Research Institure of Australia report '$25Million, 25 Milestones: Changing the future of MND'.


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