Mommy Brain or Air Pollution?

BY ON February 16, 2012

Molly RauchI sent my daughter to school today without her bathing suit, even though today is a swim day for her. And I forgot to remind the kids to pack their library books. Well, ok, there’s more: I had to buy a new Metrocard yesterday when I couldn’t find mine on the way home from work. I had no recollection of where I had put the card, or how much money was remaining on it.

Probably just Mommy Brain, the generic excuse of harried moms everywhere. Back when I was nursing my babies, I was so forgetful that I swore my brain cells must be exiting my body via the breast milk. Despite the fact that I haven’t lactated in several years, it seems the condition has persisted as I try to juggle the schedules, activities, eating habits, personalities, and playdates of my three children, not to mention my job, marriage, and household.

But then I saw a study that showed Alzheimer’s-like brain changes in people living in polluted cities.

So, is it Mommy Brain — or is it air pollution?

The new study examined the actual brains of children and young people who had died in accidents in Mexico. The researchers looked for genetic changes and physiological markers in the brains that are linked with Alzheimer’s disease. They found significantly more such changes in the brains of urban residents compared with those from rural, less polluted areas.

The study was important for two reasons. One is that it found these brain changes in young people. Alzheimer’s and its associated brain changes only rarely affect young people. The study subjects didn’t have full blown Alzheimer’s, but they had brain changes that might have led to neurological decline if they hadn’t died young in unrelated accidents.

Another important detail of the study is that it examined human brains. As squeamish as that may make us non-scientists feel, it is important to document evidence of brain changes in humans as opposed to other animals. Studies have in the past linked air pollution with brain changes in mice and in dogs. But there are relatively few such studies of people.

This study examined correlations, not causes. Such research cannot tell us whether air pollution actually caused these brain changes, only that exposure to air pollution was correlated with them. But because it is neither acceptable nor feasible to knowingly expose study subjects to air pollution from birth and then compare their brains, at an end-of-life autopsy, to study controls who have been breathing only purified air their entire lives, correlations are what we’ve got.

In my last post, I discussed fine particle pollution – the kind of pollution that comes from power plants and tailpipes; the kind that’s so tiny it lodges deep in the lungs. I noted its effects on the lungs (coughing, asthma, bronchitis, and lung cancer) as well as its effects on the heart (irregular heartbeat, nonfatal heart attacks, and premature death in people with heart or lung disease). But I forgot to note its effects on the brain.

Chalk it up to a lifetime of exposure to the very thing itself.

It’s an intriguing possibility and not very funny that living in modern urban environments – which can involve less driving than living in rural or suburban ones and therefore have environmental and health benefits – may be setting the stage for neurological disorders later in life. I myself was born and raised in New York City, and have lived exclusively in large, polluted cities except for my four years at a rural college.

And my kids. Well. Thinking about pollution in my brain is one thing, but thinking about how it affects theirs makes me want to crawl under a blanket for an extended stay.

But I don’t. That’s where Moms Clean Air Force is so important, and why I urge you to join us. We need to take charge of the health of our children’s lungs, hearts, and brains. We might never get ironclad experimental research data proving that air pollution harms brains. But we’ve still got to do something about it.


TOPICS: Pollution