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This is your brain on air pollution

The evidence keeps coming in: If we're serious about reducing health care costs, we need to stop blaming sick people and start cleaning up our land, air and water.

Back in April, stream ecologist Nathaniel Hitt, and epidemiologist Michael Hendryx published an article that examined the relationship between human health in coalfield communities and the health of Appalachian streams. This month, Science News reports on a study by Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas on air pollution and human health risks:

Scientists have known that air pollution can impair airways and blood vessels. The emerging surprise is what it might do to the brain. Increasingly, studies have been highlighting inflammation-provoking nanopollutants as a potential source of nerve cell damage.

Calderón-Garcidueñas has been correlating Mexico City’s stew of air pollutants with a suite of symptoms in people of all ages. In March in Salt Lake City at the annual meeting of the Society of Toxicology, Calderón-Garcidueñas unveiled some of her latest data.

I was especially interested in findings related to an area of the brain that is of interest to me as a psychoanalyst:

Brain scans and screening for chemical biomarkers in the blood pointed to inflammation affecting all parts of the brain, says Calderón-Garcidueñas, of the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City and the University of Montana in Missoula. On MRI scans, white spots showed up in the prefrontal cortex. In the elderly, she says, such brain lesions tend to denote reduced blood flow and often show up in people who are developing dementias, including Alzheimer’s disease.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) has a huge role in what are generally termed executive cognitive functions of the brain. Insight (in the neuropsychological sense of it), for example, represents a complex process that requires us to be able to observe ourselves, to evaluate what we are doing and to know whether the consequences that we experience because of what we're doing are consistent with what we wanted to happen. An intact and well functioning PFC helps us stay focused on a task and to hold all the information in short term memory that we need to process a task at hand.

Lesions of the prefrontal cortex are known to interfere with these functions. There are lots of other things that can interfere with function of the PFC as well. Evidence suggests that environmental pollution should be on that list.

For me, this issue of the interrelatedness of human and environmental health is both fascinating and unsettling. By polluting ourselves, are we literally risking damage to those functions of the brain that we'll need not only to recognize the consequences of our actions on the environment, but to think and feel our way out of the mess we've created?


This is a cross-posting from Earthbytes.