Lytico-Bodig, the mysterious killer of Guam
November 16, 2009 8:06 PM   Subscribe

Can an obscure disease from Guam explain the explain the appearance of neurological disorders near Marscoma Lake in New Hampshire? The only people thought to contract Lytico-Bodig were Chamorros born before 1961 and related or married to particular familes living near the village of Umatac in Guam. It was theorised that it came from eating cycad seeds, but why were there no documented cases before the 1900s, and why are there no new cases on the island today? The popular author and neurologist Oliver Sacks visited the island and has continued to study the disease. He suggests that the cause is biomagnification of a toxin produced by cyanobacteria and concentrated twice - first by the cycads, and a second time in the flesh of the fruit bats. There are no new cases, he says, because the fruit bats have been nearly hunted to extinction.
posted by Joe in Australia (10 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Great post.
posted by docpops at 8:19 PM on November 16, 2009

"Look. Four new cases of Lytico-Bodig in four random places around the world. Vicitms have no relationship, no shared links, and no contact with each other."
"But Mulrder, you ger that from eating Malay fruit bats"
"Except there are no more Malay fruit bats. Not for 10 years."

*cue X-Files Theme*
posted by The Whelk at 8:44 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

Hey, I think I ate a small amount of fruit bat. Does that give you a small amount of LB? (This happened as a kid in Guam, some random fiesta, 1969.)

Sax wrote a book, but it was Terry Cox who's behind the fruit bat idea. Here's a good article below. Hmm, is the journal Science accessible outside the university?

Guam's Deadly Stalker SCIENCE 7/2006
posted by billb at 8:47 PM on November 16, 2009

Huh. Trees with airborne, motile sperm. I'm not sure how to feel about that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:59 PM on November 16, 2009

Many victims aren't able to speak of their own accord but they can speak coherently and fluidly when spoken to.

Fascinating. Like the woman who can't walk, but can run or walk backwards.

You might want to correct that neorology tag.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:11 PM on November 16, 2009

A recurring theme in Oliver Sacks' books is that some patients with deficits in thought, speech, or movement lose those deficits when engaged in rhythmic activities like playing or moving to music, or even things like climbing. In fact the Parkinsonian patient he describes who demonstrated the fact that she could climb stairs, even though she couldn't walk, may have had Lytico-Bodig. It may be that the woman in your Youtube link can run because running is a more rhythmic activity than walking. I have no idea about the walking backwards, though.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:24 PM on November 16, 2009

The Tangle by Jonathan Weiner is another excellent essay about this, but unfortunately it's behind the New Yorker paywall and I can't find a free copy.
posted by penguinliz at 3:39 AM on November 17, 2009

Here's a chunk of it. And it does look good.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:30 AM on November 17, 2009

**Looks longingly at freshly made fruit bat and gruyere cheese omelette on his breakfast plate**

**Sighs deeply**

**Grabs car keys and heads to Dunkin' Donuts **
posted by double block and bleed at 5:38 AM on November 17, 2009

Excellent post. Accumulation of things like mercury in the food chain (people eating big fishes eating smaller fishes, etc) isn't new, but I guess it hadn't occurred to me that a biological materials could "biomagnify" in the way that elements do.

"Mascoma" Lake, BTW. Pleasant spot.
posted by GodricVT at 7:12 PM on November 17, 2009

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