News Feature | February 10, 2016

Algal Bloom May Be Linked To Alzheimer's, Researchers Say

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Researchers say algae found in freshwater lakes and reservoirs may be linked to illnesses including Alzheimer’s Disease and Motor Neurone Disease (MND).

They published their findings last month in the scholarly journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The researchers focused on BMAA, a toxin produced by cyanobacteria. Cyanobacteria are also known as blue-green algae. The researchers found that “chronic exposure to the environmental toxin BMAA can trigger neurodegeneration in vulnerable individuals,” the study said.

The study focused on vervet monkeys, who were fed BMAA-laced bananas. “Within 140 days, they developed abnormal brain structures called plaques and tangles similar to those found in brains of Guam islanders who died of an Alzheimer’s-like illness, called ALS/PDC,” the Daily Mail reported.

Paul Cox, the lead researcher on the study, spoke to the Daily Mail. “He said growing indications that BMAA might trigger Alzheimer’s and MND were ‘potentially very worrying,’” the report said.

“He stressed they were not claiming to have created Alzheimer’s in monkeys by feeding them the algal toxin. The type and location of brain plaques found in ALS/PDC, which they ‘recreated’ in the vervets, is different to that in Alzheimer’s, he noted,” the report said.

Cox explained the significance of the findings to the newspaper.

“The parts of the vervets’ brains we found plaques in, and the density of the tangles, was very similar to early-stage Alzheimer’s disease,” he said, per the report.

“Something is going on here. BMAA could be a contributory factor in some people. Previous studies have discovered that BMAA is commonly found in the brains of Alzheimer’s and MND sufferers — but only rarely in others,” he said, per the report.

Alzheimer’s experts echoed Cox’s cautiousness about meaning of the findings. Laura Phipps, from Alzheimer’s Research UK, spoke to The Independent.

"While investigating rare forms of dementia can lead to insights into the more common causes of the condition, further research is needed to understand whether the findings have relevance to diseases like Alzheimer’s or motor neurone disease in other parts of the world," she said.

"We know that the majority of cases of Alzheimer’s are caused by a mix of age, genetic and lifestyle factors. Currently, the best evidence for reducing dementia risk includes not smoking, keeping blood pressure in check, getting enough exercise and eating a healthy and balanced diet," she continued.

For more on algal blooms, visit Water Online’s Nutrient Removal Solutions Center.