If I told you that a native people in Guam have a tradition of eating bats – the entire animal — boiled in milk, you’d probably find it revolting. I sure did. Among members of this tribe, though, it’s a delicacy. Or was. They hunted the creature into extinction.
This was lucky for them, although not for the bats. Before the species became extinct, people in this tribe had 100 times the normal rate of neurological diseases like ALS, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Now rates of these diseases among their children and grandchildren are reverting to the norm.
This bizarre happenstance has led to what may be an exciting breakthrough in the search for a dementia cure. Keep reading and I’ll fill you in…
An investigation into Guam’s strange culinary habit identified a toxin that’s widespread — including here in the US – and might already be threatening your brain and central nervous system.
And the same researchers who studied Guam’s health issues have discovered the importance of a common nutrient that might save many of us from Alzheimer’s disease and other nervous system illnesses.
This nutrient and its role in mental health was unknown to me or any of the many Alzheimer’s experts we’ve talked to over the years. This is brand new stuff.
Why the Bats were Poison
Disgusting as it sounds to eat a whole bat, including eyeballs, wings and internal organs, the icky body parts were not the reason for the neurological problems as such. But it wasn’t easy to sort out what WAS the problem.
The mystery started when researchers were trying to understand why certain areas of Guam were suffering a very high incidence of a kind of hybrid form of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS – also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). The hybrid disease peculiar to Guam actually has its own name. It’s called the Guamanian amyotrophic lateral sclerosis/parkinsonism dementia complex (ALS/PDC).1
Paul Cox, an ethnobotanist who is the executive director of Brain Chemistry Labs, undertook to find out its cause, and finally figured out the boiled bats contained a high dose of a toxin named BMAA – β-N-methylamino-l-alanine.
The bats, until they became extinct, ate a diet filled with the seeds of cycad trees, which contain BMAA. The BMAA reached high levels in the bat’s flesh and the consumption of that flesh resulted in a rate of neurodegenerative disease 100 times higher than anywhere else on earth.
We’re Exposed to BMAA, Too
So what does that Guam problem have to do with brain health in the US?
It turns out that the BMAA contained in the cycad trees originates in what are called cyanobacteria that grow on the roots of the trees.
And cyanobacteria – otherwise known as blue-green algae – are found growing all around the world. In small puddles. In vast oceans. In lakes. In ponds. Even in deserts. . . you get the picture.
Consequently, Dr. Cox and other researchers realized that BMAA could be causing Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS everywhere. Not just in Guam.
As a matter of fact, when scientists began looking for clusters of ALS cases around the lakes of northern New England – in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont — they found that algae blooms in these lakes were associated with increases in the number of people suffering from ALS.2
And other studies support the concern about the brain dangers of BMAA:
- Tests on animals have shown how exposure to BMAA can cause long-term memory and nerve problems.3
- Studies in Kuwait of cyanobacteria in the desert sand show that veterans of the 1990–1991 Gulf War may have suffered increased rates of ALS from BMAA inhaled from that sand.4
A Certain Protein May Protect You
The same researcher, Paul Cox, who first brought news of the dangers of BMAA, thinks that the amino acid L-serine, which is available as a dietary supplement, may help protect against these types of brain problems and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
L-serine is essential for the body’s production of phosphatidylserine (PS), a vital component of the membranes of neurons. You probably know PS as one of the most popular and effective brain supplements. BMAA apparently does much of its brain destruction by inserting itself into membrane proteins in place of L-serine.
A study by Dr. Cox and his colleagues indicates that taking supplements of L-serine may prevent this BMAA damage.5 In particular, the study concludes that L-serine “may prove useful in designing novel therapies for ALS.”
Let me just say all of this is unconfirmed. More study is needed. But meanwhile L-serine is widely available, cheap, and completely safe to eat.
We may need it. As ocean temperatures get warmer, the rate of algae blooms off the coast of Florida and elsewhere has been increasing. And researchers believe you can take in BMAA by breathing it from the air.
Dr. Cox says L-serine “appears to be neuroprotective against all possible protein misfolding.” He describes an experiment with monkeys in which those fed BMAA developed the plaques and tangles found in Alzheimer’s patients, while a group fed both BMAA and L-serine developed 80 to 90% fewer plaques and tangles. Human studies are in progress in which ALS and Alzheimer’s patients are consuming very large amounts (30 grams a day) of L-serine.
Along with bettering brain health, Dr. Cox believes that L-serine can boost longevity. In research on the Ogimi inhabitants of Okinawa, some of the longest-living people on earth, a dietary analysis shows that they eat foods – like seaweed – that contain four times as much L-serine as the average American diet.
As Dr. Cox says, “They look unbelievable. And they live forever!”6
Well, maybe not forever. But a lot closer to it than we do.