Fine particulate air pollution usually shoots up during the winter months, especially in parts of North India, due to crop burning and excessive bursting of firecrackers.
The fact that air pollution causes a number of health issues in people of all ages is well known. Outdoor air pollutants like ozone, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide are all on the rise and so are their effects on people’s health. But the pollutant that does the most harm in countries like India is particulate matter (PM) or fine particulate air pollution. Fine particulate air pollution usually shoots up during the winter months, especially in parts of North India, due to crop burning and excessive bursting of firecrackers.
The health effects of exposure to air pollution
High levels of PM in the air have been linked to many health issues in recent studies, including lung diseases, pneumonia, dementia, psychosis and hair loss. More recently, a study published in the British Journal of Medicine indicated that exposure to PM pollutants in the air can not only worsen asthma symptoms but also cause the onset of childhood asthma. The effect of fine particulate air pollution is thus quite extensive and a rising issue for developing countries like India.
A new study published in the journal Environmental Research indicates that this lifelong exposure to air pollution, especially particulate air pollution, among children and young adults can cause Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and motor neurone disease (MND) too.
How air pollution affects neurocognitive function
Previous studies, like the one published in Dementia and Neurocognitive Disorders in January 2020, have suggested that among all air pollutants, it’s PM which inflicts the most harm on the human body, impairs cognitive function and increases the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. But most of these early studies have been based on animal trials.
The recently published study, on the other hand, included 186 Mexico city residents aged between 11 months to 27 years and focused exclusively on brain pathology and the effects of air pollutants on the brain’s function. The researchers found that the frontal cortex of the participants had high concentrations of nanoparticles and friction-derived particles, especially iron, which is usually found in vehicular combustion air pollutants.
The researchers also discovered that iron-, aluminium- and titanium-rich nanoparticles were found on the brainstem of all the young participants. The brainstems with high presence of this PM exhibited signs of early and progressive neurovascular unit damage. The way these particles reacted with brain cell mitochondria, which regulate the energy requirements and functions of the brain, could then lead to increased oxidative stress, altered cell signalling, abnormal protein synthesis, fibril formations and death of neurons.
Why controlling fine particulate air pollution is important
Such changes, in turn, are considered to be the neuropathological hallmarks of cognitive impairment and the harbingers of the development of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or motor neurone diseases like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The study found that these neuropathological hallmarks were even found in the youngest participant, who was just 11 months old.
This study concluded that if you are exposed to fine particulate air pollution from a young age, especially to metal-rich nanoparticles which can be inhaled or swallowed from the air, the harmful PM can settle on your brainstem, wreak havoc on your brain and cognitive functions and finally cause neurocognitive diseases that are chronic, progressive and debilitating. These findings make the control of PM air pollution even more critical and urgent.
For more information, read our article on Alzheimer’s disease.
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