September 20, 2021


Medical Mystery: Does Cyanobacteria play a role in brain diseases like Alzheimer's?

Florida has become the stage for a drama involving research into a possible link between brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and a toxin produced by common algae. The story so far:

Mike Vogel | 11/7/2011

Act 2 - The Florida Breakthrough

Deborah Mash
Deborah Mash, a UM neurology scientist, wants government and private donors to fund research into a link between BMAA and Alzheimer's. "They better fund this research. People better get in the game. Our research is on the downswing. Without more money, we'll probably close the BMAA project in the next six months." [Photo: Daniel Portnoy]
Cox's theory found many detractors, but he plowed onward. In 2004, he gave a lecture at the University of Miami. In the audience was Deborah Mash, a top-flight UM neuroscientist who researches addiction and neuro diseases. Mash, who founded the school's "brain bank" — a repository for donated tissue samples from healthy and diseased brains — intitially wondered only why the Chamorros would eat bats in the first place.

"The toenails, the hair, in coconut milk, the fur. Come on, man, who the hell eats that? Unless, of course — da-ta-da-dah — there's a buzz factor," Mash says. "For the Guam people it was almost like cocaine."

Aside from the "buzz factor" observation, Mash avoided the BMAA issue. She was focused on other research and knew how controversial the BMAA hypothesis was — "some very fine careers went up and down on this." But Cox and Walter Bradley, then UM's world-renowned neurology department chair, were persuasive, and Mash conducted a blind study using tissue samples from her brain bank.

In 2009, Mash published results of a study that detected BMAA in the brains from 25 Alzheimer's and ALS donors but in only two of 25 samples from healthy donors. Mash's study was "an important piece of the puzzle," Bradley says — indicating that BMAA from algae might be an omnipresent environmental hazard not confined to bats on Guam but perhaps in food, in the water, in the air near water, everyplace cyanobacteria exists, which is just about everywhere.


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