Drawing a tube of blood could assess ALS risk from environmental toxin exposure

The risk score included 36 pollutants persistently found in the environment

5:00 AM

Author | Noah Fromson

vial of blood in container lab blue yellow grainy graphic
Jacob Dwyer, Justine Ross, Michigan Medicine

Over the last decade, research at Michigan Medicine has shown how exposure to toxins in the environment, such as pesticides and carcinogenic PCBs, affect the risk of developing and dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. 

Now, investigators have developed an environmental risk score that assesses a person’s risk for developing ALS, as well as for survival after diagnosis, using a blood sample.

The results are published in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry.

SEE ALSO: Early Pesticide Exposure Contributes to Faster ALS Progression

“For the first time, we have a means collecting a tube of blood and looking at a person’s risk for ALS based on being exposed to scores of toxins in the environment,” said first author Stephen Goutman, M.D., M.S., director of the Pranger ALS Clinic and associate director of the ALS Center of Excellence at University of Michigan.

Researchers obtained over 250 blood samples from participants in Michigan both with and without ALS. They calculated individual risk and survival models using 36 persistent organic pollutants.

Several individual pollutants were significantly associated with ALS risk. However, the risk for developing the disease was most strongly represented by a mixture of pesticides in the blood.

SEE ALSO: ALS risk higher among production workers, those exposed to metals, volatile compounds on job

When considering the mixture of these pollutants, a person who was in the highest group of exposure had twice the risk of developing ALS compared to someone in the lowest group of exposure.

Our results emphasize the importance of understanding the breadth of environmental pollution and its effects on ALS and other diseases,” said senior author Eva Feldman, M.D., Ph.D., James W. Albers Distinguished Professor at U-M, the Russell N. DeJong Professor of Neurology at U-M Medical School and director of the NeuroNetwork for Emerging Therapies at Michigan Medicine.

The research team’s first understanding of the environment’s impact on ALS came in 2016 when investigators found elevated levels of pesticides in the blood of patients with the disease.

They later uncovered that exposure to organic pollutants advances ALS progression and contributes to worse outcomes.

“When we can assess environmental pollutants using available blood samples, that moves us toward a future where we can assess disease risk and shape prevention strategies,” Feldman said.

“Environmental risk scores have been robustly associated with other diseases, including cancers, especially when coupled with genetic risk. This is a burgeoning application that should be further studied as we deal with the consequences of pollutants being detected throughout the globe.”

Additional authors include Jonathan Boss, Dae-Gyu Jang, Ph.D., Bhramar Mukherjee, Ph.D., Rudy J. Richardson, Ph.D., and Stuart Batterman, Ph.D., all of University of Michigan.

This research was supported by the National ALS Registry/Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the CDC (grants 1R01TS000289, CDC/ATSDR 200-2013-56856).

This research was also supported by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences at the National Institutes of Health (grants K23ES027221, R01ES030049, R01NS127188, UL1TR002240). Additional support from the NeuroNetwork for Emerging Therapies, the NeuroNetwork Therapeutic Discovery Fund, the Peter R. Clark Fund for ALS Research, the Sinai Medical Staff Foundation, and Scott L. Pranger, University of Michigan.

Paper cited: “Environmental risk scores of persistent organic pollutants associate with higher ALS risk and shorter survival in a new Michigan case/control cohort,” Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry. DOI: 10.1136/jnnp-2023-332121

More Articles About: All Research Topics Basic Science and Laboratory Research Lou Gehrig's (ALS) Neurological (Brain) Conditions Neurodegenerative Disorder Neurological Disorders Occupational Health
Health Lab word mark overlaying blue cells
Health Lab

Explore a variety of healthcare news & stories by visiting the Health Lab home page for more articles.

Media Contact Public Relations

Department of Communication at Michigan Medicine

[email protected]


Stay Informed

Want top health & research news weekly? Sign up for Health Lab’s newsletters today!

Featured News & Stories Illustration of scientists and doctors playing basketball in white coats and scrubs
News Release
Four U-M teams selected for virtual tournament of science
U-M researchers' work made the bracket in the 2024 STAT Madness tournament of science, and need public support to advance
Animated microscopic image of the glioblastoma's tumor microenvironment
Health Lab
New model of key brain tumor feature could help scientists understand how to develop new treatments
Model shows how oncostreams form and behave in brain tumors – and how to inhibit them
Older woman checks her face in the mirror
Health Lab
Does trying to look younger reduce how much ageism older adults face?
How do ageism and positive age-related experiences differ for people who have tried to look younger, or feel they look younger, than they actually are? A new study examines this and the relationship with health
Graphic showing pills, a heart and brain with data on aspirin use
Health Lab
Aspirin can prevent a second heart attack or stroke, but many don’t use it
Washington University School of Medicine and Michigan Medicine researchers found that fewer than half of people who have experienced a heart attack or stroke use aspirin to prevent a second one.
Jianping Fu, Ph.D., Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Michigan and the corresponding author of the paper being published at Nature discusses his team’s work in their lab with Jeyoon Bok, Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Mechanical Engineering.
Health Lab
Human stem cells coaxed to mimic the very early central nervous system
The first organized stem cell culture model that resembles all three sections of the embryonic brain and spinal cord could shed light on developmental brain diseases
Illustration of a microscope
Health Lab
Hippo signaling pathway gives new insight into systemic sclerosis
Study focuses on Hippo signaling pathway as critical link between fibrosis, vascular dysfunction, and sex bias in systemic sclerosis