Cranial Air Quality

New research increasingly indicates that air pollution can inflame and damage the brain

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The next time you’re stuck in traffic behind a truck spewing sooty exhaust, you might want to change lanes. New research increasingly indicates that air pollution, in addition to causing respiratory and circulatory problems, can inflame and damage the brain, reports Science News (May 22, 2010).

Toxicologist Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas works for Mexico’s National Institute of Pediatrics and the University of Montana. In a long-term study of air pollution involving 55 middle-class children from Mexico City, she discovered signs of brain inflammation—lesions indicative of reduced blood flow that one would expect to find in older adults who are developing dementia. The children with the lesions “exhibit cognitive impairments in memory, problem solving, and judgment . . . compared with age-matched children from a cleaner city [74 miles] away,” says Science News.

A German team recently surveyed 400 septuagenarian women and found those living within 54 yards of busy streets to have poorer memory skills than their quieter-block counterparts. An Italian team linked manganese particles to Parkinson’s-like motor impairment. And in Boston, Harvard School of Public Health researchers studied 200 local 10-year-olds; the more airborne soot in their neighborhoods, the poorer the kids performed on IQ and memory tests.

Beyond the obvious—making clean air a public-policy and enforcement priority—there are lifestyle changes that could reduce risk for pollution-triggered neural damage: quitting smoking, for starters, and avoiding exposure to inflammatory agents. Calderón-Garcidueñas also recommends eating lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables and dark chocolates, which are rich in anti-inflammatory antioxidants.

Image by brain_blogger, licensed under Creative Commons.