• Robb G. Best

This is Your Brain on Smog

Bad news for those of you who live near a busy highway: research shows that exposure to air pollution may affect your cognition for the worse.

Even if you don't live next to a pollution source, you could still be in danger of these negative effects if you spend a few weeks in close proximity. For a long time, air pollution has been associated with poor cognition in both children and adults, but there was little work being done on the effects of short-term exposure. In a recent study by the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, researchers found that being subjected to air pollution, even just for a few weeks, can have negative short-term consequences for one's thinking. These pollution sources range from forest fires, smog, second-hand smoke, charcoal grills, and bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Researchers looked at 954 older white males from the Greater Boston Area enrolled in the Normative Aging Study. The researchers examined the connection between exposures to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and black carbon, a PM component, and the subject's cognitive performance, as assessed by the Global Cognitive Function (GCF) and Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) scales. The men who had elevated levels of PM2.5 experienced declines in their scores.

There is, however, an interesting side note. The men who took non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as aspirin, encountered fewer short-term health affects on their thinking than men who didn't consume NSAIDs. The researchers speculate this may be because NSAIDs, particularly aspirin, may calm inflammation in the brain caused by inhaling pollution.

“Despite regulations on emissions, short-term spikes in air pollution remain frequent and have the potential to impair health, including at levels below that usually considered hazardous,” says Andrea Baccarelli, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Environmental Health Sciences and a senior author of the study. The researchers concluded that we still need public policy to address air quality issues, regardless of the aspirin trick.

The team also outlined future studies that should examine how each of the chemical components of air pollution interacts with cognitive performance, where the air pollution is coming from in the environment, and whether or not the cognitive harm done by breathing in dirty air is temporary or lasting. In addition, randomized clinical trials of NSAIDs are needed before we can definitively say they counteract the damage.

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