Toxic nanoparticles that float around us have been discovered in "abundant" quantities in our brains, according to a recent study. This discovery, which looked at the brain tissues of 37 people, raises concerns about how our brains are affected by pollution, especially because of a link between magnetite particles and Alzheimer's disease. While the new study hasn't proved that, it still raises good points.
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“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,” said Prof Barbara Maher, at Lancaster University, who led the new research. “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.”
Air pollution is impacting the quality of life all over the world, bringing heart disease, strokes, and lung problems. Even worse, it has now been linked to degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's, mental illness, and learning problems. Now the new work, which is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found abundant particles of magnetite.
“You are talking about millions of magnetite particles per gram of freeze-dried brain tissue - it is extraordinary,” said Maher. “Magnetite in the brain is not something you want to have because it is particularly toxic there,” she said. “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.”
Having too many brain metals is a key feature of Alzheimer's, a recent study showed, and it is directly associated with the damage done to the brain. These particals do form naturally in human brains. However, the structure of the natural ones are smaller and shapped differently than the ones found in the study.
“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.”
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.”
Other scientists tell The Guardian that the link between brain metals and Alzheimer's isn't as clear.
“This is a very intriguing finding and it raises a lot of important questions,” said Professor Jon Dobson, at the University of Florida and not part of the research team. But he said further investigation was needed: “One thing that puzzles me is that the [particle] concentrations are somewhat higher than those previously reported for the human brain. Further studies [are needed] to determine whether this due to regional variations within the brain, the fact that these samples are from subjects who lived in industrial areas, or whether it is possibly due to [lab] contamination.”
“We have not demonstrated a causal link between these particles and Alzheimer’s disease but when you consider that magnetite has been found in higher concentrations in Alzheimer’s brains and you know that magnetite is pernicious in its effect on the brain, then having a direct [air pollution] source of magnetite right up your olfactory bulb and into your frontal cortex is not a great idea,” said Maher.
At this point, the best thing to do is get the knowledge and us it to make changes in not only how we treat Alzheimer's, but how we deal with pollution.