Studies about the Gulf War toxins by a former professor of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar (WCM-Q) have been highlighted in a new research breakthrough that prove environmental toxins may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

Former WCM-Q professor, Dr. Renee Richer, now of the University of Wisconsin-Marinette, analysed why one decade after returning from deployment to the First Gulf War, some US military personnel started coming down with the unusual paralytic symptoms of ALS at twice the incidence rate of those who received the same training but were not dispatched to the Gulf.

During her eight years as associate professor of Biology at WCM-Q, Dr Richer found that flat plains in the Gulf deserts are covered with dried cyanobacteria crusts waiting for winter rain to complete their life cycle. Cyanobacteria are the oldest living bacteria on earth, that normally live in water, but can thrive in a multitude of environments. If these soil crusts in the desert are disturbed by an off-road military vehicle or tank tread, the dust given off contains a neurotoxin, called BMAA.

A new study published this week by the Royal Society of London in the biological research journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B, indicates that chronic exposure to BMAA may increase risk of neurodegenerative illness.

Brain tangles and amyloid deposits are the hallmarks of both Alzheimer’s disease and also of an unusual illness suffered by villagers on the Pacific Island of Guam. Pacific Islanders with this unusual condition suffer from dementia and symptoms similar to Alzheimer’s disease, ALS and Parkinson’s disease. The diet of the Chamorro people is contaminated by BMAA.

Scientists have long suspected a link between neurodegenerative disease and BMAA and also in the brains of people suffering from ALS and Alzheimer’s disease. But this week’s announcement provides a new level of proof.

“Our findings show that chronic exposure to BMAA can trigger Alzheimer’s-like brain tangles and amyloid deposits,” said Paul Alan Cox, an ethnobotanist at the Institute for EthnoMedicine and lead author of the study. “As far as we are aware, this is the first time researchers have been able to successfully replicate brain tangles and amyloid deposits in an animal model through exposure to an environmental toxin.”

When Dr. Richer first met Cox in the deserts of Qatar during her time at WCM-Q, she was intrigued with his hypothesis of inhaled BMAA-dust as an environmental trigger for ALS. Together with her WCM-Q postdoctoral student, Dr. Aspa Chatziefthimou, Dr. Richer began an extensive survey of toxins in desert crusts.

“We were astonished that up to 87% of the deserts of Qatar are covered with cyanobacterial crusts,” Dr. Richer said. “Even more concerning was our discovery that the toxins they produce accumulate in the desert soil beneath them.”

In the research findings announced this week, scientists conducted two separate experiments on vervet monkeys.In the first experiment, vervets were fed fruit that was dosed with BMAA for 140 days.A second experiment was conducted, which added a BMAA dose closer to the amount the Chamorro villagers would be exposed to over a lifetime.

“This study takes a leap forward in showing causality—that BMAA causes disease,” said Deborah Mash, director of the University of Miami Brain Endowment Bank and co-author of the study.

The discoveries are important because they have implications for populations in areas where cyanobacteria blooms are common, such as Qatar, the wider Gulf region and also Marinette, Wisconsin, which lies on the shore of Lake Michigan and close to Lake Winnebago.

Dr. Richer added: “These new results suggest that water quality may be an important issue to now address in terms of neurological health."

The parts of the research conducted by Dr. Richer in Qatar were made possible by a National Priorities Research Programme grant from the Qatar National Research Fund, a member of Qatar Foundation.