Sierra: Air Pollution Leads to Genetic Changes in the Brain
A Cedars-Sinai study linking particulate matter in air pollution to changes in rats’ brains drew the attention of Sierra, the national magazine of the Sierra Club. Contributor Jason Daley recently spoke with the study’s lead author, Julia Ljubimova, MD, PhD, about how poor air quality can damage the brain.
Ljubimova’s team found that prolonged exposure to particulate matter in air pollution triggered inflammation and the appearance of cancer-related genes in the brains of rats. Many heavy metals found in the air may make it into brain tissue, Daley explained, and those pollutants activate genes that may lead to certain cancers or neurodegenerative disorders like strokes.
Daley detailed how the study authors designed their experiment, producing air with the same chemical makeup as that found in Riverside, California, in the Los Angeles Basin. They subjected rats to the air, with different groups of rats breathing the polluted air for two weeks, one to three months, and 12 months.
After examining the rodent brains, the researchers found higher than normal concentrations of heavy metals like cobalt, lead and nickel accumulated in the rats exposed to the pollution for a month or more. Daley found it even more disturbing that coarse particles of the pollutants had switched on certain genes.
“A smoker has to smoke for 20 years to develop lung cancer,” Ljubimova told Daley. “So, I was not sure that in three, six, or 12 months of exposure we would detect changes in these animals’ brains at the genomic level. I was very, very surprised when we found so many changes.”
She told Daley that more people are being exposed to questionable air as urbanization expands, and scientists don’t yet know all the possible ill effects exposure can inflict on the body.
Read more on Sierra’s website.