Parkinson disease (PD) and Alzheimer disease (AD), the two most common neurodegenerative disorders in American adults, are of purely genetic origin in a minority of cases and appear in most instances to arise through interactions among genetic and environmental factors. In this article we hypothesize that environmental exposures in early life may be of particular etiologic importance and review evidence for the early environmental origins of neurodegeneration. For PD the first recognized environmental cause, MPTP (1-methyl-4-phenyl-1,2,3,6-tetrahydropyridine), was identified in epidemiologic studies of drug abusers. Chemicals experimentally linked to PD include the insecticide rotenone and the herbicides paraquat and maneb; interaction has been observed between paraquat and maneb. In epidemiologic studies, manganese has been linked to parkinsonism. In dementia, lead is associated with increased risk in chronically exposed workers. Exposures of children in early life to lead, polychlorinated biphenyls, and methylmercury have been followed by persistent decrements in intelligence that may presage dementia. To discover new environmental causes of AD and PD, and to characterize relevant gene–environment interactions, we recommend that a large, prospective genetic and epidemiologic study be undertaken that will follow thousands of children from conception (or before) to old age. Additional approaches to etiologic discovery include establishing incidence registries for AD and PD, conducting targeted investigations in high-risk populations, and improving testing of the potential neurologic toxicity of chemicals.
Keywords: Alzheimer disease, maneb, manganese, National Children’s Study, neurodegenerative disease, paraquat, Parkinson disease, pesticides