Cal State Long Beach Biochemist’s Research Supports Premise That Chemical Plasticizers May Contribute to Autism, Alzheimer’s

Who knew that brine shrimp—the tiny creatures popularly known as “Sea-Monkeys”—could reveal problems with chemicals found in plastics or even contribute to potential treatments for neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and autism?

CSULB biochemistry Professor Roger Acey and students in his lab have been studying the biology and genetics of embryonic development, using brine shrimp, Artemia salina, as a biological model. He is particularly interested in how environmental contaminants affect development.
Acey’s lab initially looked at how exposing the shrimp to toxic metals like copper and mercury could affect their development. While continuing this work, which led to discovery of a shrimp protein that can capture metals, Acey took his research in another direction.

“We began looking at plasticizers and how they might affect embryonic development,” he said. “We started looking at phthalate esters—compounds that give plastic bottles their malleability," and are found in a host of plastic products, but are known environmental contaminants that are implicated in a variety of health problems.

Through a series of experiments, they learned that a commonly used phthalate, di-n-butyl (DBP), turns out to be the most toxic, and "that there is a well-defined period of development when the embryos are sensitive to the phthalate. Therefore, we began looking for a specific biochemical event that was impacted by the DBP.” As the shrimp develop, they produce an enzyme that metabolizes the DBP, which he has since identified as butyrylcholinesterase.
He noted that the shrimp were being affected by DBP at the point where their nervous system was beginning to develop. “After the stem cells are activated and begin to develop into a neuron, the DBP becomes toxic. We think what is happening is that the DBP prevents the butyrylcholinesterase from performing its normal biological function," so his lab is continuing its work in understanding the effects of these chemicals.
Acey is interested in how plasticizers might be connected to the dramatic rise in autism and Alzheimer’s disease. That led him to consider another plasticizer, bisphenol A, commonly called BPA, which is being widely studied for its possible toxicity. Acey’s group has shown that BPA is an inhibitor of butyrylcholinesterase, which "may have a pronounced effect on neuron development,” he said. Acey believes every effort should be made to prevent exposure of pregnant women and infants to these types of compounds.
Furthermore, current therapeutics used to treat Alzheimer’s disease target butyrylcholinesterase, so he and CSULB Professor Ken Nakayama are collaborating on examining the biochemistry of this enzyme and its possible connections to Alzheimer’s. They’ve applied for a patent for the compounds and are preparing to write a grant proposal to fund additional studies. He hopes that these compounds might someday be the basis for new medications to treat both conditions.
To learn more about Acey’s research, visit
Winter 2011 Issue

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