Parkinsonism and motor neuron disorders: Lessons from Western Pacific ALS/PDC

J Neurol Sci. 2021 Oct 2;120021. doi: 10.1016/j.jns.2021.120021. Online ahead of print.


Recognized worldwide as an unusual "overlap" syndrome, Parkinsonism and motor neuron disease, with or without dementia, is best exemplified by the former high-incidence clusters of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis and Parkinsonism-Dementia Complex (ALS/PDC) in Guam, USA, in the Kii Peninsula of Honshu Island, Japan, and in Papua, Indonesia, on the western side of New Guinea. Western Pacific ALS/PDC is a disappearing neurodegenerative disorder with multiple and sometime overlapping phenotypes (ALS, atypical parkinsonism, dementia) that appear to constitute a single disease of environmental origin, in particular from exposure to genotoxins/neurotoxins in seed of cycad plants (Cycas spp.) formerly used as a traditional source of food (Guam) and/or medicine (Guam, Kii-Japan, Papua-Indonesia). Seed compounds include the principal cycad toxin cycasin, its active metabolite methylazoxymethanol (MAM) and a non-protein amino acid β-N-methylamino-L-alanine (L-BMAA); each reproduces components of ALS/PDC neuropathology when individually administered to laboratory species in single doses perinatally (MAM, L-BMAA) or repeatedly for prolonged periods to young adult animals (L-BMAA). Human exposure to MAM, a potent DNA-alkylating mutagen, also has potential relevance to the high incidence of diverse mutations found among Guamanians with/without ALS/PDC. In sum, seven decades of intensive study of ALS/PDC has revealed field and laboratory approaches leading to discovery of disease etiology that are now being applied to sporadic neurodegenerative disorders such as ALS beyond the Western Pacific region. This article is part of the Special Issue "Parkinsonism across the spectrum of movement disorders and beyond" edited by Joseph Jankovic, Daniel D. Truong and Matteo Bologna.

Keywords: ALS; Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and parkinsonism-dementia complex; Epigenotoxin; Genotoxin; Methylazoxymethanol; Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease; β-N-methylamino-L-alanine.

Publication types

  • Review