Pollutants

One cause of damage in older brains, and how exercise can help

September, 2011

Two mice studies indicate that an increase in a protein involved in immune response may be behind the reduced ability of older brains to create new neurons, and that exercise produces a protein that helps protect against damage caused by illness, injury, surgery and pollutants.

In the first mouse study, when young and old mice were conjoined, allowing blood to flow between the two, the young mice showed a decrease in neurogenesis while the old mice showed an increase. When blood plasma was then taken from old mice and injected into young mice, there was a similar decrease in neurogenesis, and impairments in memory and learning.

Analysis of the concentrations of blood proteins in the conjoined animals revealed the chemokine (a type of cytokine) whose level in the blood showed the biggest change — CCL11, or eotaxin. When this was injected into young mice, they indeed showed a decrease in neurogenesis, and this was reversed once an antibody for the chemokine was injected. Blood levels of CCL11 were found to increase with age in both mice and humans.

The chemokine was a surprise, because to date the only known role of CCL11 is that of attracting immune cells involved in allergy and asthma. It is thought that most likely it doesn’t have a direct effect on neurogenesis, but has its effect through, perhaps, triggering immune cells to produce inflammation.

Exercise is known to at least partially reverse loss of neurogenesis. Exercise has also been shown to produce chemicals that prevent inflammation. Following research showing that exercise after brain injury can help the brain repair itself, another mouse study has found that mice who exercised regularly produced interleukin-6 (a cytokine involved in immune response) in the hippocampus. When the mice were then exposed to a chemical that destroys the hippocampus, the interleukin-6 dampened the harmful inflammatory response, and prevented the loss of function that is usually observed.

One of the actions of interleukin-6 that brings about a reduction in inflammation is to inhibit tumor necrosis factor. Interestingly, I previously reported on a finding that inhibiting tumor necrosis factor in mice decreased cognitive decline that often follows surgery.

This suggests not only that exercise helps protect the brain from the damage caused by inflammation, but also that it might help protect against other damage, such as that caused by environmental toxins, injury, or post-surgical cognitive decline. The curry spice cucurmin, and green tea, are also thought to inhibit tumor necrosis factor.

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Air pollution impacts cognitive performance

July, 2011

A study of Michigan public schools, and a mouse study, add to growing evidence that high levels of air pollution negatively affect learning and memory.

Following several recent studies pointing to the negative effect of air pollution on children’s cognitive performance (see this April 2010 news report and this May 2011 report), a study of public schools in Michigan has found that 62.5% of the 3660 schools in the state are located in areas with high levels of industrial pollution, and those in areas with the highest industrial air pollution levels had the lowest attendance rates and the highest proportions of students who failed to meet state educational testing standards in English and math. Attendance rates are a potential indicator of health levels.

Minority students were especially hit by this — 81.5% of African American and 62.1% of Hispanic students attend schools in the top 10% of the most polluted areas, compared to 44.4% of white students.

Almost all (95%) of the industrial air pollution around schools comes from 12 chemicals (diisocyanates, manganese, sulfuric acid, nickel, chlorine, chromium, trimethylbenzene, hydrochloric acid, molybdenum trioxide, lead, cobalt and glycol ethers) that are all implicated in negative health effects, including increased risk of respiratory, cardiovascular, developmental and neurological disorders, as well as cancer.

There are potentially two issues here: the first is that air pollution causes health issues which lower school attendance and thus impacts academic performance; the other is that the pollution also directly effects the brain, thus affecting cognitive performance.

A new mouse study looking at the effects of air pollution on learning and memory has now found that male mice exposed to polluted air for six hours a day, five days a week for 10 months (nearly half their lifespan), performed significantly more poorly on learning and memory tasks than those male mice living in filtered air. They also showed more signs of anxiety- and depressive-like behaviors.

These changes in behavior and cognition were linked to clear differences in the hippocampus — those exposed to polluted air had fewer dendritic spines in parts of the hippocampus (CA1 and CA3 regions), shorter dendrites and overall reduced cell complexity. Previous mouse research has also found that such pollution causes widespread inflammation in the body, and can be linked to high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity. In the present study, the same low-grade inflammation was found in the hippocampus. The hippocampus is particularly sensitive to damage caused by inflammation.

The level of pollution the mice were exposed to was equivalent to what people may be exposed to in some polluted urban areas.

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Exposure to vehicle pollution bad for brains old and young

May, 2011

Two recent studies have come out implicating traffic pollutants as factors in age-related cognitive decline and dementia and as prenatal risk factors for attention problems.

A study in which mice were exposed to polluted air for three 5-hour sessions a week for 10 weeks, has revealed that such exposure damaged neurons in the hippocampus and caused inflammation in the brain. The polluted air was laden with particles collected from an urban freeway.

Another recent study found that, of 215 children, those whose cord blood showed high levels of combustion-related pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), had more attention (and anxiety) problems at ages 5 and 7. The children were born to nonsmoking African-American and Dominican women residing in New York City.

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Proximity to freeway associated with autism

February, 2011

Evidence that environmental toxins might be part of the reason for the increase in autism is supported by a finding that autism risk doubled for those living close to a freeway at birth.

Increased awareness and changes in diagnostic criteria can’t entirely explain the massive increase in autism — the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported a 57% increase between 2002 and 2006. Another factor may involve environmental pollutants.

A Californian study involving 304 autism cases and 259 typically developing controls has found that living within 309 meters of a freeway at birth or during the third trimester was associated with a two-fold increase in autism risk. This association held after adjustment for gender, ethnicity, parental education, maternal age, or prenatal smoking. The researchers found no consistent pattern of association of autism with proximity to a major road.

The finding is consistent with other evidence that oxidative stress and inflammation are involved in the pathogenesis of autism. This is likely to be only one of many environmental factors that are involved.

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Manganese in drinking water may impair children's intellectual abilities

October, 2010

The ‘safe’ levels of manganese in water may need to be revisited after a study finds school-age children with high levels of manganese in their tap water have significantly lower IQs.

Manganese exposure in the workplace is known to have neurotoxic effects, but manganese occurs naturally in soil and sometimes in groundwater. One region where the groundwater contains naturally high levels of manganese is Quebec. A study involving 362 Quebec children, aged 6-13, has measured both the concentrations of metals (manganese, iron, copper, lead, zinc, arsenic, magnesium and calcium) in their tap water, and their cognitive abilities.

Although manganese concentrations were well below current guidelines, the average IQ of those whose tap water was in the upper 20% was 6.2 points below children whose water contained little or no manganese. The association was more marked for Performance IQ than Verbal IQ (Performance IQ reflects perceptual organization and processing speed). The analysis took into account factors such as family income, maternal intelligence, maternal education, and the presence of other metals in the water. No association was found between manganese in their food and IQ.

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Prenatal exposure to pesticides linked to attention problems

September, 2010

In a study of young Mexican-American children, higher prenatal exposure to pesticides was significantly associated with ADHD symptoms at age 5.

A study following over 300 Mexican-American children living in an agricultural community has found that their prenatal exposure to organophosphate pesticides (measured by metabolites in the mother’s urine during pregnancy) was significantly associated with attention problems at age 5. This association was stronger among boys, and stronger with age (at 3 ½ the association, although present, did not reach statistical significance — perhaps because attention disorders are much harder to recognize in toddlers). Based on maternal report, performance on attention tests, and a psychometrician’s report, 8.5% of 5-year-olds were classified as having ADHD symptoms. Each tenfold increase in prenatal pesticide metabolites was linked to having five times the odds of scoring high on the computerized tests at age 5. The child’s own level of phosphate metabolites was not linked with attention problems.

Organophosphate pesticides disrupt acetylcholine, which is important for attention and short-term memory. While the exposure of these children to pesticides is presumably higher and more chronic than that of the general U.S. population, food is a significant source of pesticide exposure among the general population.

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Marks AR, Harley K, Bradman A, Kogut K, Barr DB, Johnson C, et al. 2010. Organophosphate Pesticide Exposure and Attention in Young Mexican-American Children. Environ Health Perspect :-. doi:10.1289/ehp.1002056
Full text available at http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3...

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Children's cognitive ability affected by prenatal exposure to urban air pollutants

April, 2010

A Polish study has found that children prenatally exposed to high levels of air pollutants (PAHs) had significantly reduced scores on a test of reasoning ability and intelligence at age 5 (an estimated average decrease of 3.8 IQ points). This confirms findings from a previous study.

A five-year study involving 214 children born to healthy, non-smoking Caucasian women in Krakow, Poland, has found that those prenatally exposed to high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) had a significant reduction in scores on a standardized test of reasoning ability and intelligence at age 5 (an estimated average decrease of 3.8 IQ points). The mothers wore small backpack personal air monitors for 48 hours during pregnancy to estimate their babies' PAH exposure. The finding persisted after mother’s intelligence, secondhand smoke exposure, lead and dietary PAH were taken into account. Previously, prenatal exposure to PAHs was found to adversely affect children's IQ at age 5 in children of nonsmoking African American and Dominican American women in New York City. PAHs are released into the air from the burning of fossil fuels.

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