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Alzheimer's Linked to Toxic Air Pollution

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerNovember 7, 2016

A new study has linked Alzheimer’s disease to a particle found in air pollution. Although there has been much speculation about the link between the two factors, this is the first study to confirm that toxic magnetite particles found in air pollution have made their way into human brain tissue.

Learn more about the significance of this study and its implication for future Alzheimer’s studies.

Toxins Found in Brain Tissue Linked to Air Pollution

A recent study led by scientists from Lancaster University has found that tiny particles of iron oxide, known as magnetite, have been found in “abundant quantities” in human brain tissue. This is the first time the substance has been found in brain tissue and previous studies have suggested it could play a role in causing or accelerating the onset of Alzheimer’s and related forms of dementia.

The study involved brain tissue samples from 37 people who had lived in either Mexico City or in Manchester, and is the first study to prove that magnetite particles can enter the brain. These minute magnetic particles are typically found in air pollution. While angular formations of magnetite occur naturally in the brain, this study found numerous particles that were smooth and spherical.

The shape of these magnetite formations usually means they were formed at a high temperature, from a car engine, open fire or power station. These particles can interrupt normal brain cellular function by causing oxidative stress and thus creating free radicles, which can cause damage to brain cells.

Researcher and physicist Barbara Maher, co-director of the Centre for Environmental Magnetism and Paleomagnetism at Lancaster University stated, “Our results indicate that magnetite nanoparticles in the atmosphere can enter the human brain, where they might pose a risk to human health, including conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.The particles we found are strikingly similar to the magnetite nanospheres that are abundant in the airborne pollution found in urban settings, especially next to busy roads, and which are formed by combustion or frictional heating from vehicle engines or brakes.”

She continued to say, “It’s dreadfully shocking. When you study the tissue you see the particles distributed between the cells and when you do a magnetic extraction there are millions of particles, millions in a single gram of brain tissue — that’s a million opportunities to do damage.”

Which Potential Environmental Toxins Are Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease

The dangers of air pollution are no secret. The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 3 million people die prematurely each year as a result of air pollution. Researcher are hopeful that this new link to Alzheimer’s will create new studies and research into environmental risk factors for disease. David Allsop, professor and specialist in Alzheimer’s disease at the University of Lancaster and co-author or the study is optimistic, saying:

“This finding opens up a whole new avenue for research into a possible environmental risk factor for a range of different brain diseases.”

While the results do suggest a link between air pollution and Alzheimer’s, causation has not been established. Chief scientific officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK is cautiously optimistic saying, “Little is known about the role of magnetite nanoparticles in the brain and whether their magnetic properties influence brain function. It’s interesting to see further research investigating the presence of this mineral in the brain, but it’s too early to conclude that it may have a causal role in Alzheimer’s disease or any other brain disease. We know that air pollution can have a negative impact on certain aspects of human health, but we can’t conclude from this study that magnetite nanoparticles carried in air pollution are harmful to brain health.”

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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