Friday, April 08, 2005

The Fermat's Last Theorem of Neurology Solved?

Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Beak of the Finch, has a fascinating roller coaster article in this week's (sadly, only physical again) New Yorker about the famous disease lytico-bodig, which used to be prevalent among the Chamorros on Guam. It sometimes presents like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or Lou Gehrig's disease - the tangle diseases of great and growing interest. Gajdusek of kuru fame was interested in lytico-bodig, as were various other smart people, but so far an explanation hasn't been forthcoming.

Readers of Oliver Sacks's The Island of the Colorblind will already know a bit about l-b and the possible connection of cycads to this syndrome. The Chamorros use cycad seeds to make flour, first soaking them in changes of water for a week or two, because the seeds contain poison - "If dogs or chickens drink the water from the first soaking, they die." A botanist named Brian Cox thinks that the Chamorros consumed a cycad seed protein in concentrated form through their diet of fruit bats, which they hunt with guns, introduced to the island rather roughly around the time the disease started. The bats are now endanged due to hunting and the predation of a non-native snake; and l-b is now rare and confined to the old.

Cox is not a patient scientist and now jets around the world to hot-spots of tangle diseases, which he hopes to explain in one fell swoop. Many scientists are skeptical. Maybe this is nothing, maybe it's extremely important. Read the article.


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