Bowdoin’s three-day workshop on merging ecology, epidemiology and neurologic disorders drew panelists and participants from across the country and beyond, bringing researchers from as far away as Sweden and the United Kingdom.
They descended on Bowdoin to discuss mounting evidence that environmental factors play a major role in the development of neurodegenerative diseases like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Panelists included Elijah Stommel ’77, associate professor of neurology at Dartmouth Medical School.
The bacteria in question sometimes appear as blue-green scum on lakes, rivers or reservoirs that are polluted.
“We’re trying to piece together the puzzle,” noted keynote speaker Dr. Paul Cox, a leading researcher on cyanobacteria and neurodegenerative illness.
“Our hypothesis requires a really interdisciplinary approach with neurologists, experts in oceanography, microbiology, microchemists.
“One of the reasons the gathering at Bowdoin is so wonderful is it’s brought all these different people together, many of them for the first time.
“There is a link, a very direct link, between environmental health and human health. I think it behooves us to be very careful about how we protect our water sources,” he continues.
“It appears that cyanobacteria blooms are beginning to increase, perhaps because of more pollution and runoff and more extended warming periods. If that’s true and if our hypothesis is true, that could lead to a slightly greater array of these sorts of illnesses.”
Working from a spectrum of disciplines, the researchers hope to discover a trigger for the gene-environment interaction that causes these diseases.
“If we could identify the trigger and block it, it would give us a solid foundation for developing new therapies for these most terrible diseases,” says Cox.
John Held ’14, took a break from his summer vacation to drive back to Maine for the conference.
He is one of a small cadre of Bowdoin students attending the workshop.
“I think we’re really fortunate to be here with so many great minds.”