Are Florida’s dolphins at risk for Alzheimer’s?

Scientists have released a frightening new study about the alarming effects algae toxins are having on Florida’s coastal wildlife, especially dolphins
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Scientists have released a frightening new study about the alarming effects algae toxins are having on Florida’s coastal wildlife, especially dolphins.

Researchers from the University of Miami spearheaded an examination of 14 different dolphins that were found beached from Massachusetts to Florida during migration.

Half of the dolphins that were surveyed had been found trapped in areas known for harmful, toxic, algal blooms. This includes the Indian River Lagoon, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico.

According to the findings in their lab reports, 13 of the 14 dolphins appeared to be covered in lesions caused by an algae toxin known as beta-methylamino-l-alanine (BMAA). This harmful toxin is the same that is seen in humans who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

"We are looking into the possibility that BMAA is causing these lesions, or at least accelerating them," said Dave Davis, leader of the study and assistant research professor at the University of Miami.

Earlier this month, the University of Miami published a journal in the academic database PlosOne, suggesting that the toxins found in the brains of the mammals pose the same threat to them as they do to the humans who live along Florida’s coast and consume a lot of the local seafood.

According to the report at, “A warming planet that fuels more frequent toxic algae blooms may worsen the threat, especially in Florida. Chronic exposure to the toxin, β-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), can trigger Alzheimer’s-like abnormal protein ‘tangles" in the brains of dolphins. The ‘tangles’ block the ability of brain cells to function, communicate or repair themselves, so they die.”

Past studies have been conducted that suggest that there is a direct connection between BMAA toxins and diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. However, scientists have yet to say for sure if BMAA is the only danger present when identifying these illnesses.

Professor Larry Brand of UM’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a co-author on the study stated, “As far as we can tell pretty much all blue-green algae produce BMAA. Some produce a lot more than others. We don't really know for sure what the function of these toxins are.”

Harmful BMAA toxins have also been found in crabs, shellfish and many of the other sea creatures that are consumed by both humans and dolphins. Over time, these toxins build up inside of marine life as they move up the food chain, and only worsen during Florida’s common blue-green algae blooms.

The dolphins with the most BMAA levels found in their brains were from the Gulf of Mexico. These toxins may be causing the animals to wander astray from their usual migration routes and may also be affecting reproduction.

Researchers also suspect that a new, toxic form of mercury may be emerging that is worsening the effects of BMAA. They are still studying further into that theory.