Dirty minds: Air pollution may lead to neurological consequences

Air pollution has already been linked to pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.  Now scientists have got dirty air particles on the brain.

Neurologist Michelle Block is seen here with "Big Betty" an electron paramagnetic resonance spectrophotometer and other members of her lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Researcher Michelle Block is seen here with “Big Betty” an electron paramagnetic resonance spectrophotometer and other members of her lab at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Presenters shared research potentially connecting air pollution to neurological diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s at this week’s American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting at the Hyatt Regency Chicago.

After exposing mice to two weeks of magnesium oxide, University of Rochester toxicologist Allison Elder found manganese in the olfactory part of the brain and wondered how it got there. Further research showed that the inhaled particles resulted in brain inflammation that persisted over time.

She next focused on welders.

When it comes to fine particles, welders breathe in more than their fair share. When  working only a few minutes, they don’t always wear masks. Elder found that Parkinson’s disease was considerably higher in welders because of their exposure to highly concentrated manganese fumes.

In her research on diesel fumes, researcher Michelle Block of Virginia Commonwealth University found that after lungs are damaged, the brain isn’t far behind. Once lungs are damaged by diesel, they send a signal upstairs—to the brain.

“[Particles] seem to be poking these neurodegenerative pathways,” she said, adding that damaged paranodes, the transmitting fibres of the neuron, make the hypothesis that air pollutants are detrimental to the brain “entirely possible.”

This is difficult to study, however, because air gets crowded tons of different particles and complicated on a small scale. According to Elder, looking at specific air particles is akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Block also described how lots of “other stuff” attaches to particles and sneaks in like Greeks on the Trojan horse.

“We’re still in the process of weeding out what matters,” said Block.  “I don’t think we’ll ever find out it’s just one air pollutant.”