Cyanobacterial neurotoxin BMAA and brain pathology in stranded dolphins

David A. Davis, Kiyo Mondo, Erica Stern, Ama K. Annor, Susan J. Murch, Thomas M. Coyne, Larry E. Brand, Misty E. Niemeyer, Sarah Sharp, Walter G. Bradley, Paul Alan Cox, Deborah C. Mash

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Dolphin stranding events occur frequently in Florida and Massachusetts. Dolphins are an excellent sentinel species for toxin exposures in the marine environment. In this report we examine whether cyanobacterial neurotoxin, β-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), is present in stranded dolphins. BMAA has been shown to bioaccumulate in the marine food web, including in the muscles and fins of sharks. Dietary exposure to BMAA is associated with the occurrence of neurofibrillary tangles and β-amyloid plaques in nonhuman primates. The findings of protein-bound BMAA in brain tissues from patients with Alzheimer’s disease has advanced the hypothesis that BMAA may be linked to dementia. Since dolphins are apex predators and consume prey containing high amounts of BMAA, we examined necropsy specimens to determine if dietary and environmental exposures may result in the accumulation of BMAA in the brains of dolphins. To test this hypothesis, we measured BMAA in a series of brains collected from dolphins stranded in Florida and Massachusetts using two orthogonal analytical methods: 1) high performance liquid chromatography, and 2) ultra-performance liquid chromatography with tandem mass spectrometry. We detected high levels of BMAA (20–748 μg/g) in the brains of 13 of 14 dolphins. To correlate neuropathological changes with toxin exposure, gross and microscopic examinations were performed on cortical brain regions responsible for acoustico-motor navigation. We observed increased numbers of β-amyloid + plaques and dystrophic neurites in the auditory cortex compared to the visual cortex and brainstem. The presence of BMAA and neuropathological changes in the stranded dolphin brain may help to further our understanding of cyanotoxin exposure and its potential impact on human health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0213346
JournalPloS one
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)
  • General


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