Air pollutants strongly linked to Alzheimer’s

A comparison of a healthy brain and a brain afflicted by Alzheimer's. [Wikimedia]

The chronic neurodegenerative disease Alzheimer’s could be caused by particulate matter produced by exhaust fumes, power plants and agriculture, according to a new study. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The theory that pollutants can cause brain damage is not new; several studies over the last few years have indicated that it is a possibility. Subjects living in an area with more than two microgrammes of particles per cubic metre have a 46% higher chance of having a so-called silent stroke, concluded two separate American medical research centres.

Researchers have long maintained that particulate matter is harmful to health and over-exposure can lead to cancer, respiratory diseases and heart attacks. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that there are 7 million deaths worldwide as a result. In Germany alone, 35,000 people die each year due to air pollution.

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Now, a study by Barbara Maher of the University of Lancaster, along with other researchers, have concluded that particulate matter can be deposited in the brain. The inhalation of large amounts of these dangerous particles can therefore lead to Alzheimer’s, a disease which normally afflicts people over 65 and is characterised by increasing dementia.

The research group, comprised of experts from the United Kingdom, Mexico and the United States analysed the brain matter of 37 people with neurodegenerative diseases from Manchester and Mexico City. All had been exposed to large amounts of pollutants due to their time living and working in the two cities.

Eight samples from Manchester were taken from people between the ages of 62 and 89 who had Alzheimer’s or were in the preliminary stages.

In all of the samples, not just the ones with dementia, iron-oxide particles were found; the researchers concluded that those particles were of the same composition as those found in fine dust.

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The study, published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” journal associated iron-oxide with oxygen radicals, which are known to attack and damage lipids, proteins and DNA.

The researchers added that Alzheimer’s is normally only hereditary in 5% of cases and they emphasised that environmental factors are more pressing trigger and acceleration factors.

On 19 January 2011, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for dementia to be made an EU health priority and member states to develop dedicated national plans and strategies (only seven EU countries had national strategies in place). These strategies will address the social and health consequences, as well as services and support for sufferers and their families.


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