Your Brain Breathes Too

I live in Los Angeles and it’s unfortunate, but true, that the brown cloud of smog hanging over our city is as much an icon of LA as the Hollywood hills.  My morning bike commute is spent sucking on the tailpipes of my fellow Angelenos, and it turns out this doesn’t just make me cranky.  A recent article published in Neurotoxicology suggests that those of us who live in urban environments are much more likely to experience cognitive decline with age.  The culprit?  Air pollution.

While air pollution is generally thought of as a modern problem, humans have evolved to handle polluted air from sources such as forest fires and volcanic eruptions.  Coughing removes large particles from the lung, while macrophages, a type of immune cell, are responsible for engulfing and degrading small particles.  However, some particles are so small that they can penetrate the lung wall, and gaseous forms of air pollution, such as ozone, easily cross the lung wall just like oxygen or carbon dioxide.

The brain is connected to the vascular system, so toxins able to penetrate the lung wall end up in the blood, having potential access to brain tissue.  Due to the immense importance of the brain, the body has developed a unique way of protecting it from toxins: the blood brain barrier (BBB).  The BBB acts as a checkpoint for the brain; anything that enters the brain cavity must pass through the BBB first and, in general, the BBB does an excellent job.

In order for any component of air pollution to access the brain it must pass through the BBB.  It can do this by either by being so small it goes undetected or by mimicking a ‘safe’ chemical that the BBB normally allows to pass through.  Additionally, the integrity of the BBB can be compromised by toxin exposure or even aging itself, which in turn allows more potential toxins to access the brain.  For instance, one study in mice demonstrated that prolonged exposure to air pollution can cause a decrease in tight junction proteins that hold cells of the BBB tightly together and increases in ‘matrix metalloproteinases,’ which are able to breakdown the exterior of the cell.  This effectively causes a breach in the BBB, shaking the security system of the brain and thereby allowing previously unauthorized molecules to enter the brain milieu.

Your Blood Brain Barrier Breathes Too Knowing Neurons

The recent article by Gatto et al. in Neurotoxicology focuses on how three particular components of air pollution, ozone, nitrous dioxide and PM2.5 (particulate matter with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns), may be linked to cognitive decline.  The ability of some of these chemicals to create free radicals and activate inflammatory pathways may explain their link to decreased brain functioning.  Alternatively, air pollution could damage the brain indirectly.  For instance, it is well documented that air pollution can lead to an increase in heart attacks and the clogging of heart arteries (atherosclerosis).  If the heart valves are clogged and cannot pump as much blood, then the brain could suffer from reduced oxygenation (oxidative stress), which could in turn lead to poor cellular function and/or death.

In summary, growing evidence in animal models and now in human epidemiological studies suggests that prolonged exposure to certain air pollution components may lead to cognitive decline.  While the molecular mechanisms behind this link are still unclear, it is likely that oxidative stress and inflammation play a key role in causing the brain cell dysfunction and/or death responsible for cognitive deficits.

Your Brain Breathes Too by Knowing Neurons


Written by Ciara Martin.

Images from Flickr under CC license by Ben Amstutz and made by Anita Ramanthan.



Gatto N.M., Henderson V.W., Hodis H.N., St. John J.A., Lurmann F., Chen J.C. & Mack W.J. (2014). Components of air pollution and cognitive function in middle-aged and older adults in Los Angeles, NeuroToxicology, 40 1-7. DOI:

Oppenheim H.A., Lucero J., Guyot A.C., Herbert L.M., McDonald J.D., Mabondzo A. & Lund A.K. (2013). Exposure to vehicle emissions results in altered blood brain barrier permeability and expression of matrix metalloproteinases and tight junction proteins in mice, Particle and Fibre Toxicology, 10 (1) 62. DOI:


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8 thoughts on “Your Brain Breathes Too

  • January 30, 2014 at 7:12 pm

    Thank you for posting this.
    I’ve shared this on my blog too.

    • January 30, 2014 at 7:14 pm

      You’re welcome! We are glad you liked it! Thank YOU for sharing it!

      • January 30, 2014 at 7:25 pm

        I would love to see more research on how pollutants affect our brains, as some of us get to experience immediate (and almost immediate or only slightly delayed) effects, possibly in addition to the long term ones that other people may end up with.
        I have seen research that suggests that exposure to some wireless technology might make the BBB more permeable too, but I suspect certain petrochemicals are really good at getting through on their own.

    • March 11, 2014 at 1:53 pm

      Thanks for your comments Linda! My training is in toxicology and neuroscience, so expect a lot more articles like this one. Working on my thesis right now which focuses on understanding the link between pesticide exposures and Parkinson’s disease, so there will definitely be some articles focusing on that subject as well.

      • March 12, 2014 at 2:23 pm

        Good to hear, and thank you!
        There are a lot of neurotoxic ingredients in use these days, as well as endocrine disruptors and who knows what that can and do affect our brain function.
        Timing and duration of exposures seem to have some bearing on effects (severity, and are they hardwired, or temporary and or reversible).
        It’s an area we need a lot more research in order to PREVENT more damage, not just create more symptom management substances.
        Landrigan and Grandjean are very concerned about the future of our brains. So am I.

  • January 31, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Reblogged this on Sound as a Crystal and commented:
    We need more understanding of this issue and less judgment of the people who go “down the rabbit hole” of chemically induced cognitive decline.

    • February 2, 2014 at 11:51 pm

      Thanks, Sound as a Crystal! That’s a great message.

Comments are closed.