Algae blooms bad for the brain?

Posted at 8:27 AM, May 09, 2016
and last updated 2016-05-10 06:23:47-04

LEE COUNTY, Fla. -- Is the Calooshatchee bad for your brain?  New research is showing a possible  link between diseases like Alzheimer's and ALS and our local water.

Researchers from Australia , Europe and even here in Southwest Florida are all making the same connection:  blue green algae blooms are giving off a toxic compound that, when ingested, appear to have a dramatic impact on our brain cells, causing neurons to whither and die.

The fear is, Lake Okeechobee could be ground zero for diseases like Alzheimer's and ALS.

Blue green algae blooms, or cyanobacteria, are getting more common, primarily due to all the fertilizer dumped into Lake Okeechobee, which feeds the blooms.  And that algae is putting out a toxin knows as BMAA -- beta-Methylamino-L-alanine.

Dr. Larry Brand has been studying the water coming out of lake "O".  He has been monitoring algae blooms and its impact on marine life in the Caloosahatchee River, Indian River Lagoon, and Florida Bay.

MORE COVERAGE: Fox 4 Toxic Water Page

Brand's data is showing year-long hot spots for cyanobacteria blooms in all three bodies of water, and tissue samples in everything from largemouth bass in the Calooshatchee to shrimp and crabs in the Indian River Lagoon are showing high amounts of the neurotoxin MBAA.

When a person ingests BMAA, studies show it take can take up residence in the brain's neurons.  When enough BMAA gets into the neuron, it can fail to function and begin to shrink.  Its a similar condition observed in patients suffering from Alzheimer's and ALS.  And multiple studies show those patients all have high levels of BMAA in their brain tissue.

While there is a connection between BMAA and neuro-degenerative diseases, scientists have yet to prove a direct cause.

Researcher John Cassani helped collect the fish samples in the Calooshatchee, which proved to be loaded with BMAA.

Even more disturbing were autopsies of dolphins in the Indian River lagoon.  In a recent study of five dolphins that died for no apparent reason, they showed abnormal amounts of BMAA in brain tissue samples.

Biologists noted the dolphins appeared to be confused, even getting lost, "like an Alzheimer's patient" says Dr. Brand.

When asked about BMAA, the Florida Department of Health only had this comment: "BMAA is one of the many possible environmental triggers to neurological disease that is being investigated by researchers in Florida and elsewhere.  There are millions of potential environmental exposures and additional research is necessary."

In the meantime, local scientists who have studied the data are all saying the same thing.  "I personally would not eat any of the seafood from those locations," says Dr. Brand.

Below are several scientific periodicals and even a TED talk by a leading scientist on the topic of BMAA: