Breathing polluted air in the name of science


According to the WHO, 99% of the earth’s population breathes air with an excessive amount of dangerous pollutants. You may therefore at first miss the point of an experiment being carried out at the University of Manchester, which subjects 13 healthy volunteers to frequent “aerosols” based on… smog for a specific scientific goal: to understand how polluted air damages the brain.

A connection worth exploring. The effects of exposure to polluted air on cardiovascular health and the incidence of chronic diseases (diabetes, cancer) have been known for a long time. Less researched are those on the brain, although the presence of a link between unhealthy air and poor mental and neurological health is highlighted in dozens of scientific studies. “Over the past 10 years, we’ve begun to see statistical links between air pollution and a whole range of brain-related problems – from how children learn, to how their cognition changes, to health problems, mental health and an increased risk of dementia, ” explains Ian Mudway, an environmental toxicologist at Imperial College London and one of the main authors of the study.

Unhealthy torture. The team recreates four different types of pollution in the lab: exhaust emissions from a diesel engine, smoke from burning wood, the smell of cleaning products and fumes from cooking meat. Levels of each pollutant are carefully analyzed and measured before the unhealthy air is funneled into a special chamber and directed as an aerosol onto volunteers’ faces. Participants undergo the treatment several times over several months, each hour breathing in a different pollutant without knowing what they are inhaling at that moment.

At the origin of evil. The aim is to better understand the biological basis of the observed association, i.e. to clarify how different inhaled pollutants damage the brain and to rank them according to danger. The volunteers are subjected to cognitive tests before and after each inhalation of polluted air and are willing to take biological samples to understand how the substances affect their bodies. For example, we want to find out whether pollutants are entering the brain directly, or whether the damage that studies show is caused by indirect effectfor example, due to ongoing inflammation in other parts of the body, such as the lungs.

Hide. It is very important to better understand the impact of air pollution on the brain, and not just to try to combat the seven million premature deaths caused by outdoor and indoor pollution each year; but also to understand and prevent the origins of some of the most widespread brain disorders, from dementia to depression.


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