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Air pollution exposure may increase risks for autism and schizophrenia

by BRIANNA SICILIANO Photo/Video Editor

Air pollution exposure has been suspected to increase the risk of both heart and lung diseases for a long time, but those are not the only organs that may be at risk of injury – the brain also has a risk of being harmed.

Researchers at the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS) annual meeting in Chicago recently discovered that constant exposure to air pollution may impact the developing brain. According to the panel, a series of mouse models have proved that constant inhalation of air pollution may lead to enlargement of the brain’s ventricles (a hollow part in an organ), a hallmark of neurodevelopmental disorders such as schizophrenia and autism.

According to the organizer of the panel, Dr. Deborah Cory-Slechta, air pollution is a combination of various metals and gases, often consisting of various sized particles. The larger particles usually do not pose a risk to the body since they are often coughed up and disposed, but the smaller particles are the ones that health experts believe pose a huge health threat.

“The component people worry about the most are the smallest particles – the ultrafine particles. The reason is because those go all the way down into the bottom of the lung. Once they get to the bottom of the lung, they can be absorbed into the blood stream,” said Cory-Slechta, a professor in the department of environmental medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine.

Cory-Slechta said she initially started looking at air pollution in relation to the brain by accident – after some of her colleagues sent her the brains of mice that had been exposed to moderate amounts of air pollution.

“They wanted to see what the effect was on the developing lung in mice. And they didn’t have any use for the brains, so they contacted us and said, ‘Do you want to look at the brains?’ So we took the brains, and it had been a couple months since exposure, and we couldn’t find a brain region that didn’t have inflammation going on. Not one,” said Cory-Slechta.

Hoping to further analyze the relationship between air pollution and brain injury, Cory-Slectha and her team began a series of rodent studies using unfiltered air from Rochester, N.Y. If you have ever been to Rochester, you can just imagine how polluted the air is.

During their third study, the researchers exposed the rodents to air pollution from post-natal days 4 through 13 – a critical time for brain development in mice.  Researchers then analyzed the mice’s brains the day after the exposures had ended.

While observing the mice, researchers found that every rodent had a varying degrees of damage – but most notably, the lateral ventricles were significantly dilated. Filled with cerebrospinal fluid – clear fluid that that surrounds the brain and spinal cord – the brain’s ventricles help to protect the brain, keep it clean and boost its energy. However, when these ventricles are enlarged, it often causes a poor prediction of the course and outcome for central nervous system development.

“It is scary to think that pollution could lead to diseases as serious as autism and schizophrenia. If a child is born into a city environment, they have a higher chance to obtain these diseases. That is insane,” said sophomore Daniel Nasser.

In order to further confirm the air pollution-brain injury relationship, Cory-Slectha and her team are working on obtaining more funding to look into the potential behavioral changes that may be caused by air pollution exposure. In the long run, she hopes that her studies will have an impact on the regulations already set in place to limit pollution in the atmosphere.

“I hope that scientists and researchers are able to confirm if the air pollution-brain injury relationship is as harmful as they believe it is. If the proper research is done and confirmed, then maybe we will be able to prevent future cases of autism and schizophrenia,” said an anonymous senior.

What do you think about air pollution’s connections to autism and schizophrenia?

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