Rutgers and Emory University scientists have discovered a surprising link between mold and Parkinson’s disease: organic compounds which are given off by these organisms may be a possible cause for this devastating condition.
While the causes of Parkinson’s disease are poorly understood at this time, previous studies have suggested that several factors, such as genes and environmental triggers, may play a part in causing it. Arati Inamdar, who is a researcher at Rutgers’ School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, says that they have now found a link between a fungal compound called 1-octen-3-ol, or mushroom alcohol, and Parkinson’s symptoms.
The research team studied how the compound affected two specific genes in fruit flies which are involved in the transport of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Neurotransmitters are chemicals produced in the brain which are responsible for communication between nerve cells. Problems with dopamine production in an area of the brain called the substancia nigra are known to cause Parkinson’s disease.
Joan Bennett, who is co-author on the study, says that the results of the study are very personal for her. She was teaching at Tulane University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina unleashed its wrath on the Gulf Coast in 2005. Her house developed a problem with mold and fungus as a result.
Bennett says she was aware of “sick building syndrome” because of her expertise in toxic fungi, however, she didn’t believe that it really existed. She eventually became a believer when she developed dizziness, nausea and headaches as a result of the mold growing in her home.
When she came to Rutgers, her past experiences led her to study how fungi might be connected to the symptoms that she had experienced. Inamdar convinced her that fruit flies would be a good genetic model.
For over a year, she and Inamdar studied various fungal compounds trying to discern just what it was about exposure to molds and other fungi that caused health problems.
Then, in 2010, Bennett and her colleagues discovered the presence of 1-octen-3-ol in fungi. This substance is what is known chemically as a volatile organic compound, meaning that it tends to give off vapors. Whenever we smell something, that means we are smelling volatile organic compounds, Bennett says.
This particular compound is very toxic, Inamdar says. And, when they applied it to fruit flies, they found that it specifically attacked two genes which are known to be involved with dopamine. Since these two genes are involved in the packaging and transportation of dopamine, the presence of this chemical causes the degeneration of neurons and leads to Parkinson’s disease-like symptoms.
Although there is not yet any firm evidence that this chemical compound can cause Parkinson’s disease in humans, there have been studies showing that people exposed to moldy buildings have developed neuropsychological problems and movements disorders, Inamdar says. And, she adds, there are also studies which indicate rising numbers of cases of Parkinson’s disease in rural areas. Although this has often been blamed on pesticides, there is also quite a bit of exposure to mold in these areas, she says.
The full report about the study linking mold and Parkinson’s disease was published online on November 11, 2013 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
By Nancy Schimelpfening