Research released at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) shared concerning information related to air pollution and its possible link to neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Although air pollution has historically been suspected to increase some health risks such as heart and lung disease, recent research indicates that the brain may also be impaired by overly polluted air.
Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta, organizer of the AAAS panel and professor with the University of Rochester School of Medicine, stated that polluted air can contain a dangerous mixture of metals and gases. Although larger air particles do not typically pose health risks, very small particles can. Looking specifically at how air quality can affect the developing brain, researchers shared that recent work done using mice models suggest that constant exposure to polluted air can lead to ventricle enlargement in the brain. Neurodevelopmental disorders including autism and schizophrenia can be characterized by similarly enlarged brain ventricles.
Last year, researchers with the University of Southern California were able to show that polluted air increased the risk of autism spectrum disorder in those who already carried a genetic predisposition for the disorder. Recent research shared at the AAAS meeting is among the first to introduce air pollution’s potential link to neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia in brains that do not carry a genetic predisposition.
Cory-Slechta shared her thoughts with Fox News, stating that the ultra fine particles found in polluted air are what worries researchers most. Because the ultra fine particles reach all the way into the bottom of the lung, they can be absorbed and enter into the bloodstream. Cory-Slechta admitted that air pollution’s link to disorders like autism and schizophrenia was discovered almost by accident. Initially, the mice models were used to look at lung development. However, after taking a peek into the brains of the mice, the research team could not find a single brain region that did not have noticeable inflammation.
After exposing the brains of mice to air pollution during critical stages of brain development, Cory-Slechta and her team discovered that each brain had varying degrees of damage. Of specific interest to the researcher team were the significantly dilated lateral ventricles of the brain. According to Fox News, when lateral ventricles are significantly enlarged, it may indicate an issue with development of the central nervous system. Enlarged brain ventricles can put pressure on the rest of the tissue, Cory-Slechta explained.
The enlargement of the brain’s lateral ventricles, commonly referred to as ventriculomegaly, has been linked to a number of other brain diseases including Alzheimer’s disease and bipolar disorder. Ventriculomegaly is also linked to birth defect in children. Because the research team noted the brain damage most significantly in the male mice, they are interested in learning more about the potential link between air quality and disorders like autism and schizophrenia, both considered to be mainly male oriented conditions.
Cory-Slechta and her research team are currently working to obtain additional funding to take a closer look at air pollution’s possible link to brain injury and neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and schizophrenia. Cory-Slechta shared with Fox News that she hopes the work will one day affect regulations related to air pollution.
By Katie Bloomstrom