Scientists recently found that the brains of young people exposed to air pollution display the markers of neurodegenerative diseases in their brain stems.

A new study has shown that young adults and children exposed to air pollution have the markers of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and motor neuron disease in their brain stems.

Alongside these markers were nanoparticles that appeared to originate from vehicles’ internal combustion and braking systems.

Neurodegenerative diseases

Neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and motor neuron disease affect a significant number of people across the world. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) note that in 2014, about 5 million people in the United States had Alzheimer’s disease.

Scientists have a good understanding of what happens to a person’s brain and nervous system in each of these diseases. However, they are less clear about the fundamental causes.

The CDC, the National Institute on Aging, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke say that Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and motor neuron disease are likely due to a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

Link to air pollution?

One environmental factor that may contribute to the development of neurodegenerative diseases is air pollution.

Research has shown a link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s disease. However, the link between Parkinson’s disease and air pollution is less clear, and there has been limited research on the effects of air pollution on motor neuron disease.

In the recent study, the researchers set out to identify the markers for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and motor neuron disease in the brain stems of deceased young people from Mexico City.

They wanted to see whether they could link these diseases to any indication of air pollution nanoparticles in the individuals’ brain stems.

The researchers examined material from 186 autopsies that took place between 2004 and 2008. The individuals ranged in age from 11 months to 40 years.

Pathologists performed the initial autopsies a few hours after death and then stored the materials, including parts of the brain stem, at -80°C (-112°F) until the researchers examined them.

Neurodegenerative epidemic?

For the researchers, the co-presence of particles from urban air pollution and markers of neurodegenerative diseases is a serious cause for concern. The researchers are worried that an epidemic of neurodegenerative illness could occur as young people around the world who are exposed to air pollution grow older.

As Prof. Maher explains, “[i]t’s critical to understand the links between the nanoparticles you’re breathing in or swallowing and the impacts those metal-rich particles are then having on the different areas of your brain.”

“Different people will have different levels of vulnerability to such particulate exposure, but our new findings indicate that what air pollutants you are exposed to, what you are inhaling and swallowing, are really significant in development of neurological damage.”

“With this in mind, control of nanoparticulate sources of air pollution becomes critical and urgent.”

– Prof. Barbara Maher

Medical reference: Medial News Today