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Roskamp Institute executive director addresses GPICA

By PAULETTE LeBLANC - | Feb 10, 2021


The Greater Pine Island Civic Association held its monthly meeting on Feb. 2, where Mike Mullan, executive director of the Roskamp Institute, gave a presentation on a red tide project being conducted by the non-profit organization.

According to Mullan, who is a molecular biologist, the institute has been working on diseases of the brain and central nervous system for decades. Within the duration of Mullan’s work, he was part of a team that originally discovered the genetic causes of Alzheimer’s disease. The institute, he said, established in Sarasota in 2003, is composed of a group of scientists, MDs and PhDs as well as a neurology clinic, serving approximately 6,000 people. The group is funded on a competitive basis by grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration as well as some private donors.

“The basic work we engage in is understanding the causes of neurological and neuro-degenerative disorders,” said Mullan. “We’ve done most of our work in Alzheimer’s, but we work a lot also in traumatic brain injury. Over the last 10 years or more we’ve worked a lot on environmental exposures, particularly exposure to pesticides — the biggest example of our work being in Gulf War illness.”

Chronic neuro-inflammation, he said, has become one of the biggest discoveries of long-term problems. This is what began the group’s initial interest in red tide and brevetoxins.

“We were interested in whether there was any link between the toxin and the potential for harm to the human central nervous system,” said Mullan.

To date, much work has been done on large marine mammals that have been exposed to brevetoxins in algal blooms. The findings, he said, are noted by brain inflammation in these animals. There’s a particular interest in reports of disorientation, and other brain related symptoms in manatees that have been exposed to red tide blooms. There is also a lot being studied and discovered on the consequences of ingestion of large amounts of brevetoxin, which typically occurs, he said, when consuming contaminated shellfish.

“It’s well documented that ingestion of large amounts of neurotoxin can lead to what’s called NSP (neurotoxic shellfish poisoning) which causes acute neurological symptoms, some of which can be very severe and indeed life threatening,” Mullan said. “They range all the way from headaches; changes in perception in the skin, face, lips and mouth; tingling; changes in the perception of heat and cold; impaired balance; slurred speech; dizziness; and starts to progress all the way to much more severe complications like loss of consciousness and epileptic seizures … and can even progress to partial paralysis.”

Mullan said the findings have concluded that effects of NSP are directly related to the ingested dose of the toxins. Young children, for example, would present with symptoms much worse after consuming the same amount as an adult who is bigger and heavier. Much of what we witness in wildlife being impacted by brevetoxin during red tide, he said, is also very clearly a dose-related issue. At this time, the institute is more interested in the potential effects of breathing in the toxin in aerosols directly from the ocean. During the algal blooms from 2005 to 2009 in a six-county study, including Lee and Charlotte, an excess of neurological complaints were exhibited by emergency room patients, Mullan said.

“People were walking in complaining of neurological symptoms, the most prominent one was migraine headaches,” said Mullan. “If you have a headache that’s severe enough for you to go to the emergency room, that’s not just a regular headache.”

It’s well known, he sid, that individuals prone to pre-existing pulmonary conditions have those conditions exacerbated or triggered by exposure to red tide. According to Mullan, asthmatics or people with emphysema are more likely to have complications due to red tide exposure, including pneumonia. Although he says the biological mechanism behind this has not yet been made entirely clear, it’s relatable to many people who suffer upper-respiratory symptoms. The way brevetoxin affects the brain, he said, is that it interferes with communication between nerve cells (neurons), by interrupting the electric current. The level of toxins can be measured allowing detection to exposure.

The purpose of the red tide study, he said, is to answer the question of whether repeated exposure to aerosolized brevetoxin correlates to neurological symptoms.

“I have to say in all the decades that I’ve been involved with recruiting people for clinical studies or clinical trials, this has been the easiest study ever to recruit volunteers,” said Mullan. “There’s a really broad interest in this study up and down our coast.”

According to Mullan, Roskamp Institute is geared toward finding treatment for any exposure related issues.

If you are interested in being included in the Roskamp Institute red tide study, please call the institute 941-256-8018.

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Member Jeff Waller gave an update on the proposed Doppler Radar Tower, saying for now the project remains in a holding pattern until the county makes a decision regarding whether there has been sufficient information provided by Fort Myers Broadcasting to schedule a public hearing.