ALGAE’S LINK TO MEMORY
Updated: Oct 26, 2022
Homeopathy is based on the concept of “like cures like”. This concept can be traced back to the Greek physician Hippocrates, the Father of Medicine, who stated “a disease arises because of similars, and, by being treated with similars, patients recover from such diseases”. Simply put, the diseases a substance is capable of causing, can also be cured by that substance. Thus, the same substance can be good or bad for us, depending on the amount of exposure to that substance.
Blue-green algae offers us a potential glimpse into this phenomenon. Commonly known in health circles as Spirulina, blue-green algae is considered a superfood. People have used it as a food supplement for thousands of years. Early civilizations including the Aztecs and African tribes used blue green algae as an additional source of protein (1). Not only is Spirulina a good source of protein, it is also rich in Vitamin B1, B2, and B3 as well as copper and iron. Additionally, Spirulina is rich in omega-3’s and omega 6, it is a powerful antioxidant, and it provides all the amino acids humans need. In addition to nutritional attributes, research shows Spirulina can improve memory function in two ways. First, Spirulina protects the brain from free-radical damage. Second, Spirulina reduces levels of amyloid-beta proteins throughout the brain (1). This is important because people with Alzheimer’s disease have abnormally high accumulation or plaques of this protein, and it is what causes severe memory loss.
One can see that at the right levels, Spirulina is good for improving memory. But is there evidence that too much Spirulina can be bad for memory? Would too much blue-green algae as we see in summer algae blooms affect memory? Based on the concept of like cures like, an excessive amount of algae should result in a decline in memory. Interestingly, scientists say they now have good evidence in animals that exposure to a toxin from algae can trigger dementia-like changes in the brain.
In recent months, University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science researchers have found that algae blooms produce a toxin that may be causing a condition similar to Alzheimer’s in dolphins. In the study, University of Miami researchers examined the brains of 14 dolphins that had beached themselves along the coasts of Florida to Massachusetts. Scientists found that thirteen of the dolphins had a toxin in their brain called β-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA) at levels 1½ times higher than what's commonly seen in human brains with Alzheimer's. Moreover, the dolphins’ brains were covered with lesions or “tangles”. The researchers found that chronic exposure to 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, deteriorating and eventually dying (2).
The discovery of BMAA as a potential cause of Alzheimer’s and dementia goes back to the 1950s in the small Pacific Island of Guam. There, locals began to get ill from a disease similar to dementia. Post-mortem examinations revealed abnormal proteins in the diseased brains similar to those found in Alzheimer's cases. Baffled by this discovery, researchers began to look at the local diet and environment to see if they could establish a connection. In particular, they became interested in studying areas with high algal concentration. To their surprise, they found that BMAA is produced by common algae. And as far as scientists can tell, all blue-green algae produce BMAA (3).
In experiments conducted by Dr Paul Cox from the Institute of Ethnomedicine, and other scientists from the University of Miami, monkeys were fed fruit spiked with BMAA. After 140 days, all the monkeys had developed abnormal proteins or tangles in the brain. The control monkeys, those who received only regular fruit, did not experience any change in the brain. Dr Cox repeated the experiment with more monkeys and achieved the same results. "Every single monkey that had eaten the BMAA bananas developed brain tangles, even those who received low doses (3).
Spirulina’s toxicity seems to be linked to its proliferation. In general, blue-green algae is harmless. In small quantities, it is beneficial to health while in large quantities it creates an imbalance in the ecosystem that deteriorates the health of the oceans and the creatures that inhabit it. Unfortunately, these algae blooms are man made and they are increasing in frequency (4). Algae blooms are a result of poor farming practices and increasing temperatures in our oceans, gulfs, rivers and lakes (5). As our climate continues to warm, experts predict these events will become larger in scope and scale. In May 2016 in Florida, a 33-square-mile algal bloom took over Lake Okeechobee while algae covered a 636-mile stretch of the Ohio River that same year (6). This increase in algal concentrations has implications for people living along areas prone to algae blooms. According to the same University of Miami research study, scientists suggested that the toxin not only poses a risk to dolphins and other sea mammals, it also poses similar risks to humans who live along the coast or eat seafood from algae-prone areas.
With the prevalence of Alzheimers and dementia in society today, these findings are concerning; fortunately, homeopathy may offer some hope. Following the idea of “like cures like” it is possible that blue-green algae itself may prove to be the cure for some types of brain degeneration. In homeopathy, blue-green algae is associated with a state comparable to dementia or Alzheimers; however, to date there is very little materia medica about these plants (7). Further research into blue-green algae and its homeopathic uses is warranted to find out more about this fascinating connection!