Diseased Dolphins: Researchers say toxic algae poses health risk to marine life

(WSVN) - Researchers at the University of Miami fear a tiny, single cell plant found in some South Florida waterways could have a huge impact on our brains. They’re looking into a possible connection between blue-green algae and Alzheimer’s, and as 7’s Kevin Ozebek tells us, researchers have already found a clear link between the two in “Diseased Dolphins.”

They’re known for their intelligence and agility, but dolphins are now under siege by microscopic blue-green algae. It’s the same algae that can bloom, clog and stink up South Florida canals, and it’s causing severe harm to these majestic mammals.

Kevin Ozebek: “It looks like more than half of this dolphin’s brain is impacted by this toxin.”

Dr. David Davis, Brain Endowment Bank, University of Miami: “That’s correct.”

Dr. David Davis is a researcher at the University of Miami’s Brain Bank. He’s closely studying the brains of beached dolphins and is alarmed at what he’s finding. In many of the brains, there are high levels of BMAA, which is a toxin produced by blue-green algae.

Dr. David Davis: “It’s what we call a slow toxin, exposed to it over years, and finally the symptoms hit.”

Take a look at this slide of a dolphin brain that contained BMAA toxin. The purple spots you see are damaged cells. Zoom out, and you can see all those damaged cells create a swirl pattern.

It’s the same pattern found in humans who are suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Kevin Ozebek: “Did you find these Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in dolphins that would be fairly young?”

Dr. David Davis: “Yes, we did. We found these symptoms in dolphins of all ages.”

Dr. Davis believes dolphins both young and old are suffering from an Alzheimer’s-like disease, because their food chain is contaminated. When there’s a blue-green algae outbreak in the water, shrimp eat the algae, fish then eat the shrimp, and then dolphins eat the fish.

Kevin Ozebek: “We may not live in the ocean, but we eat a lot of the same food, so do you think this could have an impact on us?”

Dr. David Davis: “Absolutely, absolutely.

Dr. Davis is closely working with his UM colleague, Dr. Larry Brand. The marine biologist is one of the world’s leading researchers on blue-green algae.

Dr. Larry Brand: “This water is going to flow down into Florida Bay, where we have a large bloom of blue-green algae.”

He often leaves the lab to go to the source and measure levels of toxic algae in South Florida waterways.

Dr. Larry Brand: “If you’re exposed to these blooms, you’re getting exposed to toxins.”

Dr. Brand says blooms big enough to cover canals in thick algae mats are usually fueled by fertilizer run-off from big farms in Central Florida. He is also investigating whether blooms are breaking out more often and contaminating more South Florida marine life.

Kevin Ozebek: “Is it safe to eat seafood?”

Dr. Larry Brand: “Some seafood, yes. I eat tuna, I eat salmon.”

Those are deep ocean fish where blue-green algae outbreaks don’t happen. Back at the Brain Bank, Dr. Davis will now turn his attention to human brains.

Kevin Ozebek: “Can you say there is a definitive link between blue green-algae and Alzheimer’s in humans?”

Dr. David Davis: “We can’t say definitively, but we can say it’s probable.”

But to be sure, both doctors are still looking for answers. They say it will take a least a year of research to make a definitive claim, one way or the other.

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