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Air Pollution May Shrink the Aging Brain

Several recent studies found that air pollution has a negative effect on the brain. This study of elderly women in North Carolina found that long-term exposure to higher levels of air pollution (specifically fine particulate matter smaller than 2.5 micrometers (called PM2.5) resulted in smaller brain volumes (especially the brain's white matter). They studied elderly women (aged 71 to 89), but the findings should be of concern to everyone exposed to high levels of air pollution.  White matter connects brain regions (with nerve fibers that pass signals throughout the brain) and determines how information is processed in the brain. The researchers pointed out that other recent studies reported that high air pollution is linked to cognitive decline and accelerated brain aging. From Futurity:


Exposure to air pollution may have a negative impact on how the brain’s white matter ages. Older women who lived in geographic locations with higher levels of fine particulate matter in ambient air had significantly smaller white matter volumes across a wide range of brain areas, new research shows.

Fine particulate matter is smaller than 2.5 micrometers and is known as PM2.5, a form of pollution that easily enters the lungs and possibly the bloodstream. White matter connects brain regions and determines how information is processed in the brain....“Our study provides convincing evidence that several parts of the aging brain, especially the white matter, are an important target of neurotoxic effects induced by long-term exposure to fine particles in the air.”

The study found that older women ages 71 to 89 who had lived in places with greater PM2.5 exposures had significantly smaller volumes of white matter and that this could not be explained by the geographic region where they lived, their race or ethnic background, socioeconomic status, lifestyle, or medical conditions that may also influence brain volumes.

The researchers performed brain magnetic resonance imaging scans of 1,403 women who are part of the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study (WHIMS), a nationwide report based at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. The researchers also used residential histories and air monitoring data to estimate the participants’ exposure to air pollution in the previous six to seven years.

White matter contains nerve fibers and connects brain regions with each other by traveling deep within and passing nerve signals throughout the brain. Gray matter is primarily composed of neuronal cell bodies, dendrites, glial cells, and capillaries. The study did not find impacts from exposure to air pollution in participants’ gray matter.