ViewPoint: Sault Ste. Marie , Blue-Green Algae and New Brunswick Neurological Desease


By Peter Chow

Blooms of blue-green algae have been found in the past few summers in lakes in the Sylvan Valley, Cloudy Lake and Rock Lake, behind Echo Bay and even in Lakes Erie, Michigan, Huron and now even Superior.

Why is this significant?

Blue-green algae produce a toxin, BMAA that is probably causing New Brunswick neurological disease (NBND), a neurological disease publicly identified in 2021 which has stricken 48 people, killing 6 so far in New Brunswick.

New Brunswick neurological disease (NBND) is a neurological disease of uncertain origin, geographically limited to New Brunswick, concentrated in the Moncton and Acadian Peninsula regions.

Symptoms include rapidly progressing dementia, unexplained and significant weight loss, myoclonus, changes in behaviour, sleep disturbances, unexplained pain, visual hallucinations, co-ordination problems and severe muscle and brain atrophy, progressing over a period of 18 to 36 months.

The majority experience multi-day insomnia even with “sleep medication” (shades of Fatal Familial Insomnia, a prion disease).

Memory loss and aphasia are seen.

In some cases, Capgras delusion and echolalia have been reported.

Capgras delusion is a psychiatric disorder in which a person holds a delusion that a close family member has been replaced by an identical impostor.

Echolalia is the automatic repetition of vocalizations made by another person.

Involuntary muscle jerks (myoclonus) persist even in the late stages of the disease when patients are unconscious… In late stages of illness, patients have akinetic mutism, where they no longer have the ability to speak or move.

The cases indicate that the disease affect men and women equally, all age groups, with a median age of patients being 59 years old.  Patients have been as young as 18 to as old as 86

The disease is so far only found in New Brunswick, with 35 cases in the Acadian Peninsula.

Focus is on an environmental toxin, beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA).

Beta-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) is produced by blue-green algae.

Blue-green algae are actually not algae, but the bacteria called cyanobacteria.

When cyanobacteria in a body of water increase enough, a dense mass called a bloom will form.

Cyanobacteria produce several neurotoxins that are quite toxic to humans and animals.

Cyanobacteria was ruled as the cause of death of four dogs that died after going near the St. John River around Fredericton in 2019.

Keep your dog out of any body of water that looks like it has “pond scum.”

The bacteria is present in various water bodies across New Brunswick, including in the watershed that is the drinking water source for Moncton.

In Africa, 330 elephants were found killed from drinking water infected by blue-green algae in Botswana last year.

One neurotoxin is BMAA (beta methylamino-L-alanine) which is linked to increased risk of developing ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig disease), a catastrophic and uniformly fatal neurodegenerative disease.

Clusters of ALS have been reported around lakes and areas of oceans with blue-green algae blooms.

Researchers at Dartmouth Medical Center have identified ALS hot spots in lake and coastal communities with toxic blooms of blue-green algae in New England, a large one in Vermont near Lake Champlain and a smattering of smaller ones among coastal communities in New Hampshire and Maine.

There is a blue-green algae bloom at the western end of Lake Erie that has grown to cover 620 square miles.

A Cleveland Clinic neurologist has plotted a mega-cluster of over 1,000 cases of ALS in the northwest corner of Ohio, near the western shore of Lake Erie.

Researchers strongly suspect that fish and shellfish from waters contaminated with cyanobacteria blooms may be one way that people ingest BMAA.

In southern France, researchers suspect ALS cases may be linked to consumption of mussels and oysters.

Lobsters, collected off the Florida coast near blooms, also have been found with high levels of BMAA.

Three sporadic ALS patients lived in Annapolis, Maryland, and developed the disease within a relatively short time and within close proximity to each other.

The common factor among them was the frequent consumption of blue crab which were found to have high levels of BMAA.

Investigators concluded that the presence of BMAA in the Chesapeake Bay food web and the lifetime consumption of blue crab contaminated with BMAA probably led to these cases of ALS.

The indigenous Chamorro people on the South Pacific island of Guam have a diet that has one of the highest levels of BMAA in the world.

They are afflicted by a devastating fatal neurodegenerative illness dubbed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Parkinsonism/dementia complex (ALS-PDC) at a rate that is 100 times the incidence of ALS world-wide.

In the late 1990s ethnobotanist Paul Alan Cox visited the indigenous Chamorro people of Guam, sleuthing for cancer cures in the lush rainforest.

He soon stumbled upon the troubling facts that would change the trajectory of his career, leading to major clues in understanding Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS) and possibly other neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The Chamorro made tortillas out of ground cycad seeds, which are loaded with BMAA. They also ate feral pigs and fruit bats that fed on cycad seeds

The bats, known as Mariana flying foxes, were a highly prized delicacy, stewed in coconut cream and eaten whole—brains, bones, skin, and all.

In 2002 Cox and Columbia University Medical Center neurologist Oliver Sacks (author of the book and movie Awakenings) hypothesized that chronic dietary exposure creates a neurotoxic reservoir of BMAA in the brain tissues of the Chamorros that, after a lag time, leads to a neuronal meltdown.

Cox made another advance, discovering that BMAA was produced by cyanobacteria that lived as symbionts in the roots of the cycad plants.

They tested BMAA in various organisms along the food chain and found samples of Mariana flying fox skin had exorbitant BMAA levels averaging 3,556 µg/g.

This was 10,000 times more than was found in free-living cyanobacteria and 3 times as much as in the fleshy cycad seed coat eaten by the bats, supporting the idea of biomagnification (in which a contaminant  —  usually a fat-soluble compound  —  accumulates in an organism).

But the biggest surprise came when they tested human brains in a blinded study.

They found high BMAA concentrations not just in the brains of all ALS-PDC and ALS patients tested but also in the brains of Canadians who died of Alzheimer disease (AD)  —  yet not in age-matched controls.

If BMAA was produced by cyanobacteria on Guam, how could people in Canada be exposed?

Because cyanobacteria photosynthesize, scientists once classified them as algae  —  and many people still refer to them as blue-green algae.

Cyanobacteria can erupt in sprawling and often toxic blooms in fresh and salt water, associated with high nutrient inputs such as fertilizer runoff.

The incidence of cyanobacterial blooms has increased worldwide and will grow even more widespread with warming climates.

Algoma Public Health reported blue-green algae blooms in Cloudy Lake and Rock Lake last summer.

The body mistakes BMAA for the amino acid L-serine, a naturally occurring component of proteins.

When the toxin is mistakenly inserted into proteins in brain cells in place of L-serine, they become “misfolded,” meaning they no longer function properly, leading to neuronal meltdown.

The medical world is anxiously awaiting the definitive cause of New Brunswick Neurological Disease.