Tuesday’s PDN featured an excellent page two article on recent research on the cause of lytico-bodig. Lytico-bodig is a neurological disorder peculiar to Guam. Lytico is the local name for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig�s Disease). “Lytico usually involves a loss of muscle in the hands and legs with weakness, difficulty speaking, swallowing and breathing.” Bodig is a form of Parkinsonism dementia complex and symptoms “include stiffness and slowness of movement, tremor or shaking in hands, and difficulty in walking and remembering things.” Lytico-bodig occurs only in adults, with onset usually occurring in their 40’s. The cause of lytico-bodig is unknown, but a number of theories have been advanced over the years. One of the most popular theories is that the use of fadang, a flour made from the seeds of cycads palms, during the Second World War and the lean years after the war was a factor in the onset of the disease. The seeds of cycadia palms are poisonous, but repeated soaking, washing and rinsing can leech the poisons out of the seeds prior to grinding. Since the incidence of the disease is highly centralized in the southern villages of Umatac, Merizo and Inarajan, local or family variations in the preparation of fadang were suspect. This is one of the the theories advanced in Oliver Sacks’ book The Island of the Colorblind. Sacks, a noted neurologist, visited Guam in the company of Dr. John Steele, a neurologist that has spent decades studying lytico-bodig on Guam. Dr. Steele is a leading proponent of the fadang hypothesis, though many other theories abound; magnesium in the papayas, aluminum cooking implements, genetic predilection, or various viral or bacteriological agents.
Now a new theory has arisen. A USGS study proposes that untreated water used in the river towns of Umatac, Merizo and Inarajan exposed people to toxins released by algae and bacteria at certain times of the year. One of the compelling reasons against the fadang hypothesis is the occurrence of conditions similar to lytico-bodig in both Japan and New Guinea, where there are no cycadia for human consumption. However, the locations in Japan and New Guinea are also centralized on small river villages, leading the researchers to suggest that long term exposure to untreated freshwater toxins can induce lytico-bodig.
It is highly possibly that a cause for lytico-bodig will never be found. While records of people suffering from lytico-bodig stretch back nearly 200 years, not a single person born after 1952 has shown any indication of the onset of lytico-bodig, leading many researchers to suspect an environmental cause that is no longer present in the population. This could be the decline of fadang as a food staple in the Chamorro diet, or the introduction of a modern water treatment system following World War Two.
Some links to lytico-bodig:
- Google results for lytico-bodig
- New Zealand article on Oliver Sacks’ Island of the Colorblind
- Another article about lytico-bodig and Oliver Sacks
- University of Pennsylvania article on neurological disorders
- Page 3 of this newsletter focuses on lytico-bodig and NIH funding
- The US Geological Survey study that prompted my post
While this disease may forever remain a mystery, other health problems on the island are well known and treatable. Diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer are widespread on Guam, and directly attributable to smoking, poor diet and lack of exercise. This deadly trifecta affects far more people than lytico-bodig and they are eminently preventable and treatable.