Evidence of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s & MND in Brains of Young People Exposed to Dirty Air

Summary: An examination of brainstems from children and young adults constantly exposed to air pollution reveals markers of Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and motor neuron disease. Findings suggest air pollution poses risks of serious neurological damage from an early age.

Source: University of Lancaster

Researchers looking at the brainstems of children and young adults exposed lifelong to air pollution in Mexico City have discovered disturbing evidence of harm.

Previous studies have linked fine particulate air pollution exposure with Alzheimer’s disease, and researchers have also reported evidence of air pollution-derived nanoparticles in the frontal cortex of the brain.

But after examining the brainstems of 186 young Mexico City residents aged between 11 months and 27 years of age, researchers, including Professor Barbara Maher from Lancaster University, found markers not only of Alzheimer’s disease, but also of Parkinson’s and of motor neurone disease (MND) too.

These markers of disease were coupled with the presence of tiny, distinctive nanoparticles within the brainstem – their appearance and composition indicating they were likely to come from vehicle pollution.

This has led researchers to conclude that air pollution of this nature – whether inhaled or swallowed – puts people at risk of potential neurological harm. The brainstem is the posterior part of the brain which regulates the central nervous system, controls heart and breathing rates, and how we perceive the position and movement of our body, including, for example, our sense of balance.

Professor Maher said: “Not only did the brainstems of the young people in the study show the ‘neuropathological hallmarks’ of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and MND, they also had high concentrations of iron-, aluminium- and titanium-rich nanoparticles in the brainstem – specifically in the substantia nigra, and cerebellum.

“The iron-and aluminium-rich nanoparticles found in the brainstem are strikingly similar to those which occur as combustion- and friction-derived particles in air pollution (from engines and braking systems).

“The titanium-rich particles in the brain were different – distinctively needle-like in shape; similar particles were observed in the nerve cells of the gut wall, suggesting these particles reach the brain after being swallowed and moving from the gut into the nerve cells which connect the brainstem with the digestive system.”

The ‘neuropathological hallmarks’ found even in the youngest infant (11 months old) included nerve cell growths, and plaques and tangles formed by misfolded proteins in the brain. Damage to the substantia nigra is directly linked with the development of Parkinson’s disease in later life. Protein misfolding linked previously with MND was also evident, suggesting common causal mechanisms and pathways of formation, aggregation and propagation of these abnormal proteins.

The one thing common to all of the young people examined in the study was their exposure to high levels of particulate air pollution. Professor Maher says that the associations between the presence of damage to cells and their individual components – especially the mitochondria (key for generation of energy, and signalling between cells) – and these metal-rich nanoparticles are a ‘smoking gun’.

Such metal-rich particles can cause inflammation and also act as catalysts for excess formation of reactive oxygen species, which are known to cause oxidative stress and eventual death of neurons. Critically, the brainstems of age- and gender- matched controls who lived in lower-pollution areas have not shown the neurodegenerative pathology seen in the young Mexico City residents.

These new findings show that pollution-derived, metal-rich nanoparticles can reach the brainstem whether by inhalation or swallowing, and that they are associated with damage to key components of nerve cells in the brainstem, including the substantia nigra.

This shows a smoke stack
This has led researchers to conclude that air pollution of this nature – whether inhaled or swallowed – puts people at risk of potential neurological harm. Image is in the public domain.

Even in these young Mexico City residents, the type of neurological damage associated with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and motor neurone diseases is already evident. These data indicate the potential for a pandemic of neurological disease in high-pollution cities around the world as people experience longer lifespans, and full symptoms of earlier, chronic neurological damage develop.

Professor Barbara Maher said: “It’s critical to understand the links between the nanoparticles you’re breathing in or swallowing and the impacts those metal-rich particles are then having on the different areas of your brain.

“Different people will have different levels of vulnerability to such particulate exposure but our new findings indicate that what air pollutants you are exposed to, what you are inhaling and swallowing, are really significant in development of neurological damage.

“With this in mind, control of nanoparticulate sources of air pollution becomes critical and urgent.”

Partners on the study which was led by Lilian Calderón-Garcidueña (of The University of Montana and the Universidad del Valle de México) also included:

Angélica González-Maciel and Rafael Reynoso-Robles, Instituto Nacional de Pediatría, Mexico, Barbara A. Maher and Jessica Hammond, Centre for Environmental Magnetism and Paleomagnetism, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, UK Randy Kulesz, Auditory Research Center, Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Erie, PA, USA, Ingolf Lachmann, AJ Roboscreen GmbH, Leipzig, Germany, Ricardo Torres-Jardón, Centro de Ciencias de la Atmósfera, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, UNAM, Mexico City Partha S.Mukherjee, the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, India.

About this pollution and neurology research news

Source: University of Lancaster
Contact: Ian Boydon – University of Lancaster
Image: The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Closed access.
Quadruple abnormal protein aggregates in brainstem pathology and exogenous metal-rich magnetic nanoparticles (and engineered Ti-rich nanorods). The substantia nigrae is a very early target in young urbanites and the gastrointestinal tract a key brainstem portal” by Barbara Maher et al. Environmental Research.


Quadruple abnormal protein aggregates in brainstem pathology and exogenous metal-rich magnetic nanoparticles (and engineered Ti-rich nanorods). The substantia nigrae is a very early target in young urbanites and the gastrointestinal tract a key brainstem portal

Fine particulate air pollution (PM2.5) exposures are linked with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases (AD,PD). AD and PD neuropathological hallmarks are documented in children and young adults exposed lifelong to Metropolitan Mexico City air pollution; together with high frontal metal concentrations (especially iron)–rich nanoparticles (NP), matching air pollution combustion- and friction-derived particles. Here, we identify aberrant hyperphosphorylated tau, ɑ synuclein and TDP-43 in the brainstem of 186 Mexico City 27.29 ± 11.8y old residents. Critically, substantia nigrae (SN) pathology seen in mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum and neuromelanin (NM) is co-associated with the abundant presence of exogenous, Fe-, Al- and Ti-rich NPs.The SN exhibits early and progressive neurovascular unit damage and mitochondria and NM are associated with metal-rich NPs including exogenous engineered Ti-rich nanorods, also identified in neuroenteric neurons. Such reactive, cytotoxic and magnetic NPs may act as catalysts for reactive oxygen species formation, altered cell signaling, and protein misfolding, aggregation and fibril formation. Hence, pervasive, airborne and environmental, metal-rich and magnetic nanoparticles may be a common denominator for quadruple misfolded protein neurodegenerative pathologies affecting urbanites from earliest childhood. The substantia nigrae is a very early target and the gastrointestinal tract (and the neuroenteric system) key brainstem portals. The ultimate neural damage and neuropathology (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and TDP-43 pathology included) could depend on NP characteristics and the differential access and targets achieved via their portals of entry. Thus where you live, what air pollutants you are exposed to, what you are inhaling and swallowing from the air you breathe,what you eat, how you travel, and your occupational longlife history are key. Control of NP sources becomes critical.

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  1. I think that damage to the brain stem and plasticity of same can be seen in the wide range of respiratory rates in adults during health. The early respiratory physiology pioneers recorded normal breathing rates from as low as 3 breaths per minute at rest to as high as 28 breaths per minute at rest. Scientists have forgotten this. Everyone assumed that tidal volume would be bigger in order to have the 5-8 litres of air exchanged per minute.

    This assumption is wrong. My friend Paula found out accidentally that her breathing rate at rest is 3 breaths per minute [she had it measured as part of a first aid class-she was not aware of this and no one else was either].

    It turns out that her minute respiration is a little below 2 litres per minute of air exchanged at rest.
    This means that what we currently know about respiratory physiology is WRONG.

    Paula was born not breathing and thrived after being resuscitated and transfused. Maybe breathing less air at rest per minute is good, who knows? No one knows!

    Paula and I would like minute ventilation to be studied more carefully in healthy adults [and in demented adults].

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