Western Pacific ALS-PDC: Evidence implicating cycad genotoxins

Peter S. Spencer, Valerie S. Palmer, Glen E. Kisby

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Parkinsonism-Dementia Complex (ALS-PDC) is a disappearing neurodegenerative disorder of apparent environmental origin formerly hyperendemic among Chamorros of Guam-USA, Japanese residents of the Kii Peninsula, Honshu Island, Japan and Auyu-Jakai linguistic groups of Papua-Indonesia on the island of New Guinea. The most plausible etiology is exposure to genotoxins in seed of neurotoxic cycad plants formerly used for food and/or medicine. Primary suspicion falls on methylazoxymethanol (MAM), the aglycone of cycasin and on the non-protein amino acid β-N-methylamino-L-alanine, both of which are metabolized to formaldehyde. Human and animal studies suggest: (a) exposures occurred early in life and sometimes during late fetal brain development, (b) clinical expression of neurodegenerative disease appeared years or decades later, and (c) pathological changes in various tissues indicate the disease was not confined to the CNS. Experimental evidence points to toxic molecular mechanisms involving DNA damage, epigenetic changes, transcriptional mutagenesis, neuronal cell-cycle reactivation and perturbation of the ubiquitin-proteasome system that led to polyproteinopathy and culminated in neuronal degeneration. Lessons learned from research on ALS-PDC include: (a) familial disease may reflect common toxic exposures across generations, (b) primary disease prevention follows cessation of exposure to culpable environmental triggers; and (c) disease latency provides a prolonged period during which to intervene therapeutically. Exposure to genotoxic chemicals (“slow toxins”) in the early stages of life should be considered in the search for the etiology of ALS-PDC-related neurodegenerative disorders, including sporadic forms of ALS, progressive supranuclear palsy and Alzheimer's disease.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number117185
JournalJournal of the neurological sciences
StatePublished - Dec 15 2020


  • Cell cycle
  • Cycasin
  • DNA damage
  • L-BMAA
  • Methylazoxymethanol
  • Neurodegeneration
  • Sitosterol

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Clinical Neurology


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