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:
Act 4 - Don't Go Near the Water?
UM neurology department chairman emeritus Walter Bradley gave botanist Paul Cox's hypothesis a boost after he became interested in Cox's idea that a toxin from algae causes neurodiseases. The Oxford-educated scientist is the author of the primary neurology textbook used in medical schools and, for lay readers, "Treating the Brain — What the Best Doctors Know" and "Gib's Odyssey: A Tale of Faith and Hope on the Intracoastal Waterway," about a patient who made a solo voyage from Key West to New York and back. Bradley has spent 40 years studying Lou Gehrig's disease. He says it's too early to worry people about eating seafood or living near algae waters. "It's a matter of dosage and susceptibility. Everything in moderation." [Photo: Alan Diaz/Miami Herald]
Supporters of the BMAA hypothesis this month will hold their annual symposium in Miami to discuss their work. Much more research needs to be done, but getting funding for controversial ideas such as the BMAA hypothesis is difficult. Mash exhorts government and private donors to come forward. Some 590,000 Floridians are expected to have Alzheimer's by 2025.
"Our laboratories need to come up to speed, and the naysayers need to get out of the way," Mash says. "Our state is unique. We're surrounded by water. Let's go! Let's go!"
But the naysayers aren't getting out of the way. They scoff at the notion that BMAA in our food or air downwind from an algae bloom is causing neurodisease. One vocal critic of the theory, Christopher A. Shaw, of the University of British Columbia neuroscience department, e-mails, "You do know that the entire story is b.s. from beginning to end?" In an interview, Shaw, whose focus is on a different cycad compound for Guam, gives a point-by-point, scientific knockdown of the BMAA hypothesis, starting with the flaws he sees in Cox's original study.
David Morgan, a University of South Florida medical school professor and coordinator of its Alzheimer Research Laboratory, praises the quality of the methods and researchers on Mash's brain tissue study but questions the conclusions being drawn from it. BMAA may just coincide with some other agent that actually causes Alzheimer's or may be one contributing factor, just as small strokes are, for a disease that likely has many causes.
"The possibility that it causes it is feasible. The likelihood that it is a major cause is low," Morgan says.
Even researchers such as Cox, Bradley and Mash who are hot on the BMAA trail say it's not time to give up eating fish or worry about inhaling every time there's an algae bloom offshore. Clearly, some people are more genetically susceptible to brain diseases than others.
At a BMAA conference a few years back, Bradley's wife had planned the menu for the event at their home and then was horrified, Bradley says, to hear Brand relate his findings of BMAA in fish and crustaceans. "Guess what we fed them?" Bradley says. "Crab cakes and shrimp."