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Smog in Mexico City

Smog hangs in the air in Mexico City. (Photo: World Learning/flickr/cc)

Linking Alzheimer's to Pollution, Study Finds 'Abundant' Toxic Nanoparticles in Human Brains

Toxic magnetic particles suspected of link to Alzheimer's disease discovered in brains of people living in heavily polluted areas

Nika Knight Beauchamp

Toxic magnetic nanoparticles from air pollution have been discovered in "abundant" quantities in human brains, according to a new study.

The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), is particularly alarming because other research recently raised the strong possibility of a link between such particles and Alzheimer's disease.

"Magnetite in the brain is not something you want to have because it is particularly toxic there."
—Professor Barbara Maher,
Lancaster University
This latest study "suggests that most magnetite found in the human brain, a magnetic iron oxide compound, comes from industrial air pollution. And because unusually high concentrations of magnetite are found in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease, the findings raise the specter of an alarming new environmental risk factor for this and other neurodegenerative diseases," writes Science.

The researchers examined the brains of 37 people in Mexico City, Mexico, and Manchester, U.K., and discovered "abundant" amounts of magnetite and other nanoparticles deemed toxic.

The new research "suggests the particles can be inhaled and enter the brain through the olfactory nerve, which takes information about smells to the brain," according to the Telegraph.

Professor Barbara Maher of Lancaster University, who headed the study, told the Guardian:  "You are talking about millions of magnetite particles per gram of freeze-dried brain tissue—it is extraordinary."

"Magnetite in the brain is not something you want to have because it is particularly toxic there," she added, explaining that the metal can create free radicals, which have been linked to Alzheimer's. "Oxidative cell damage is one of the hallmark features of Alzheimer’s disease, and this is why the presence of magnetite is so potentially significant, because it is so bioreactive."

"Abnormal accumulation of brain metals is a key feature of Alzheimer's disease and a recent study showed that magnetite was directly associated with the damage seen in Alzheimer’s brains," the Guardian notes.

The Guardian reports on Maher's further findings:

"Many of the magnetite particles we have found in the brain are very distinctive," said Maher. "They are very rounded nanospheres, because they were formed as molten droplets of material from combustion sources, such as car exhausts, industrial processes and power stations, anywhere you are burning fuel."

"They are abundant," she said. "For every one of [the crystal shaped particles] we saw about 100 of the pollution particles. The thing about magnetite is it is everywhere." An analysis of roadside air in Lancaster found 200m magnetite particles per cubic metre.

Furthermore, said Maher: "We also observed other metal-bearing particles in the brain, such as platinum, cobalt and nickel. Things like platinum are very unlikely to come from a source within the brain. It is a bit of an indicator of a [vehicle] catalytic converter source."

"This is a discovery finding, and now what should start is a whole new examination of this as a potentially very important environmental risk factor for Alzheimer's disease," Maher said. "Now there is a reason to go on and do the epidemiology and the toxicity testing, because these particles are so prolific and people are exposed to them."

The negative health impacts of air pollution have recently come into stark relief, with the UN saying last week that it kills as many people as cancer.


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