Evidence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s in brains of people exposed to dirty air

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In a new study, researchers examined the brainstems of children and adults exposed lifelong to air pollution.

They found markers not only of Alzheimer’s disease but also of Parkinson’s and of motor neuron disease (MND).

The research was conducted by a team from Lancaster University and elsewhere.

Previous studies have linked air pollution exposure with Alzheimer’s disease, and researchers have also reported evidence of air pollution-derived nanoparticles in the frontal cortex of the brain.

In the study, the team examined the brainstems of 186 young Mexico City residents aged between 11 months and 27 years of age.

The brainstem is the posterior part of the brain which regulates the central nervous system, controls the heart and breathing rates, and how we perceive the position and movement of our body, including, for example, our sense of balance.

They found the markers of disease were coupled with the presence of tiny, distinctive nanoparticles within the brainstem—their appearance and composition indicating they were likely to come from vehicle pollution.

This has led researchers to conclude that air pollution of this nature—whether inhaled or swallowed—puts people at risk of potential neurological harm.

They not only did the brainstems of the people in the study show the ‘neuropathological hallmarks’ of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and MND, they also had high concentrations of iron-, aluminum- and titanium-rich nanoparticles in the brainstem—specifically in the substantia nigra, and cerebellum.

The titanium-rich particles in the brain suggest these particles reach the brain after being swallowed and moving from the gut into the nerve cells which connect the brainstem with the digestive system.

These new findings show that pollution-derived, metal-rich nanoparticles can reach the brainstem whether by inhalation or swallowing and that they are linked to damage to key components of nerve cells in the brainstem.

These data show a pandemic of neurological disease in high-pollution cities around the world as people experience longer lifespans, and full symptoms of earlier, chronic neurological damage develop.

One author of the study is Professor Barbara Maher.

The study is published in Environmental Research.

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