Brainwell® Blog

Does Pollution Hurt Your Brain?


For some time, scientists have known that exposure to air pollution can have negative consequences for the lungs and cardiovascular system, affecting both the heart and surrounding arteries. But new studies reveal the damage does not stop there; air pollution can also do considerable harm to the brain.

While all forms of air pollution are bad, the main culprits that affect humans are fine and ultrafine particulate matter (FPM and UFPM), released from diesel exhaust, fires and combustion sources from coal, oil and industry. FPM and UFPM are particularly dangerous because they are actually small enough to reach the brain and other major organs. Though further research is needed, scientists have found significant correlation between exposure to air pollution and the following neurological and health-related conditions.

One way pollution can actually affect your brain is through carotid artery stenosis – a buildup of fatty substances in arteries around the neck. Because these same arteries lead to the head, this means a decrease in blood flow to the brain. In serious cases, this buildup can lead to a stroke, one of the leading causes of death in America. Taking data from over 300,000 people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, a recent study found that people living in areas with higher air pollution are much more likely to experience carotid artery stenosis. In fact, people living in the most polluted area had a 24% higher risk than those in the area with the lowest tested air pollution.

But even people living in areas with lower levels of air pollution are at risk, as air pollution-related strokes are possible at pollutant concentrations below current standards. While most people are not at too great a risk, for children, the elderly and individuals with preexisting medical conditions – particularly diabetes and cardiovascular conditions – the risk is higher.

Neuroinflammation and Neurodegeneration
Numerous studies have revealed one of the most significant effects of exposure of the brain to air pollution is neuroinflammation – an inflammation of the brain’s nervous tissue. Neuroinflammation, in turn, plays a key role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Multiple Sclerosis (MS). While scientists are still pursuing research into this pressing issue, it appears that there is a strong correlation between air pollution these diseases.

Developmental Issues
Exposure to air pollution may even be linked (when coupled with genetics, nutrition, and more) to school performance, behavioral changes, mood disorders, ADHD and autism. In fact, recent epidemiological and psychological literature suggests evidence of a link between pollution and lower cognitive functioning in children, meaning that even children who are healthy from a clinical perspective may be suffering from the effects of air pollution.

What Can You Do?
While the issue of pollution must be solved as a society, there are certain steps we can each individually take to protect ourselves and our loved ones:

1. Avoid high-traffic areas, as fine particulate matter and ultrafine particulate matter are very prevalent there.

2. Avoid tobacco products, particularly cigarettes.

3. If you are often exposed to air pollution in your work environment, be sure to use proper protective gear.

4. On days with high pollution index levels, all individuals, but especially children and those at higher risk for air pollution-related health issues, should avoid going outside for extended periods of time.