Air Pollution Could Damage Your Brain

You knew it wasn't good for your lungs, but new tests find that pollution affects your cognitive abilities and may cause depression.

car exhaust

It's no secret that breathing in polluted air on a regular basis can do a number on your heart and lungs. Now researchers from Ohio State University claim that air pollution can cause learning and memory problems, as well as depression.

The research, published this week in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, exposed mice to polluted air (fine particulate matter) that is comparable to what can be seen in major cities. After 10 months of exposure, the mice were given behavioral tests. In one test, mice placed in a brightly lit area were given two minutes to find an escape hole to a dark box (mice want to be in a dark environment rather than a light one) after a five-day training period. The pollution-exposed mice took longer to find the escape hole and were not as likely as their pollution-free counterparts to remember where the hole was later. These same mice were also more likely to exhibit depressive behaviors.

So what happened to the pollution-exposed mice? The researchers tested the hippocampal area of the mice, a region of the brain associated with depression, learning, and memory, and found that the pollution-exposed subjects had fewer dendrites, spines (dendrite projections that transmit signals between neurons), and diminished cell complexity—all the stuff you need for your hippocampus to work correctly.

This is not good news for humans. "The results suggest prolonged exposure to polluted air can have visible, negative effects on the brain, which can lead to a variety of health problems," said Laura Fonken, lead author of the study, in a statement. "This could have important and troubling implications for people who live and work in polluted urban areas around the world." We can't imagine the situation is much better for people who live near coal plants and factories—even outside urban areas.

[Image: Flickr user eutrophication&hypoxia]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Nora Kennedy

     I think the difference between urban pollution and rural pollution is the size the particle within the pollution and the concentration of the particulate matter.  Generally, pollen has a much larger particle size- relatively speaking- that is more easily "filtered" by the body and the rural pollution concentration is not nearly that of urban areas.

  • Andrew Norris

    Andrew Krause: I would not be so sure if I were you. Pollen is known to affect some people only, only at certain time of the year and make eyes and nose overreact. This is quite different than the many published effects on long term health of pollution, upon your organs and cardiovascular system. Studies show that people in the countryside live much longer. Pollution will surely be having an effect.

  • Andrew Krause

    The article is not being made available online, but based on the abstract it appears the control group was given filtered air, while the test group was given air with heavy particulate concentrations and tracked over 10 months. Suburban and rural environments contain particulates as well. I'd say that anyone living in rural georgia when hardwood pollen counts go up to 1200 units is easily suffering the same hypoxic effects as an urban dweller walking through midtown Atlanta.

  • Peter Sharp

    What the action of the human kind destroys, science recovers. The discovery of the neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to create and develop neurons and connections to decrease the natural cognitive decline and improve the brain capacity, has been breakthrough over the past decades. It created a new form of training - the brain training programs. When scientifically validated, these programs may change your life for the better. I recommend one that is available online, it is for free: CogniFit.