(NaturalNews) A chemical responsible for the musty smell of mold may also produce symptoms similar to those of Parkinson's disease, according to a recent study conducted by researchers from Rutgers and Emory Universities and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"These findings are of particular interest given recent epidemiological studies that have raised the concern of neuropsychological impairments and movement disorders in human populations exposed to moldy and water-damaged buildings," the researchers wrote.
Parkinson's disease is a progressive, degenerative neurological disorder characterized by tremor, rigid muscles and slow, imprecise movement. Other symptoms include difficulty swallowing and depression. According to the Parkinson's Disease Foundation, approximately 1 million people suffer from the disease in the United States, with 60,000 new cases diagnosed daily.
The disease occurs when the nerve cells in certain regions of the brain die, leading to drops in levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine. There is no cure, although certain drugs can lessen its symptoms.
Scientists do not know what causes the destruction of brain tissue that produces Parkinson's disease, although it appears to result from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Pesticide exposure, in particular, has been strongly linked to Parkinson's risk. Yet, because there are reported cases of Parkinson's from before the industrial revolution, scientists believe that other factors may also cause the disease.
Hurricane Katrina aftermath
Study co-author Joan Bennett said she first became interested in the link between mold and neurological symptoms when her house was flooded after Hurricane Katrina. In the following weeks, her property became infested with mold, and she began to experience severe health problems.
"I felt horrible - headaches, dizziness, nausea. I knew something about 'sick building syndrome' but until then I didn't believe in it," she said." I didn't think it would be possible to breathe in enough mold spores to get sick."
Bennett's research on the mold samples in her own home eventually led her to suspect the chemical 1-octen-3-ol, also known as mushroom alcohol.
In the recent study, researchers exposed fruit flies to mushroom alcohol and found that the chemical killed dopamine-transmitting cells in the insects' brains, leading directly to a drop in dopamine levels.
In another experiment, mushroom alcohol also blocked the activity of two genes involved in dopamine transport, human plasma membrane dopamine transporter (DAT) and human VMAT ortholog (VMAT2). This led to a corresponding drop in dopamine absorption.
"Our work suggests that 1-octen-3-ol might also be connected to the disease, particularly for people with a genetic susceptibility to it," co-author Arati Inamdar said. "We've given the epidemiologists some new avenues to explore."
The changes observed in the fruit flies' brains mimic those seen in human patients with Parkinson's disease. Yet the disruptions seen in the flies' movement also strongly mirror the effects of many pesticides.
This may imply that mushroom alcohol and some pesticides target the nervous system in similar ways, and it could explain why both pesticides and molds can produce similar neurological symptoms.
"Increased incidence of Parkinson's disease is seen in rural populations, where it is usually attributed to pesticide exposure," the researchers wrote. "However, the prevalence of mold and mushroom in these environments may provide another plausible risk factor for the development of Parkinson's disease."
Further research would be needed to prove a connection between mold and neurological symptoms. However, many negative health consequences to prolonged mold exposure are already well documented, including an increased risk of respiratory allergies, asthma and chest infections.