Air pollution refers to a wide range of gases, liquids, and solids suspended in the atmosphere. Known to have harmful effects on the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, these contaminants are now implicated in damage to the brain—an organ exposed to the air via multiple pathways.
Evidence of harm
Many of the studies on the effects of chronic exposure to air pollution are observational, making researchers wary of saying air pollution causes reduced cognitive function. Nevertheless, evidence from in vivo studies in humans and nonhuman animals, combined with in vitro research and analyses of postmortem brains, is beginning to lend support to the idea.
Researchers have discovered magnetite particles that look similar to those produced by vehicle engines in the frontal cortex of postmortem human brains.
Some studies have found reduced volumes of white matter in people who have been exposed to elevated levels of air pollution.
MRI scans indicate that some regions of the brain, such as the basal ganglia, develop more slowly than normal in children exposed to air pollution.
In vitro and in vivo research finds a link between components of air pollution and inflammation-related damage in brain cells.
A number of research groups have reported a higher accumulation of Alzheimer’s-associated proteins such as amyloid-ß in the brains of humans and animals exposed to air pollution.
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Catherine Offord is an associate editor at The Scientist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.