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Freeway Air Bad for Mouse Brains

Constantinos Sioutas recreates air pollution in the lab to directly measure damage to brains of living mice and mouse brain cells in tissue culture
Carl Marziali
April 07, 2011 —

If mice commuted, their brains might find it progressively harder to navigate the maze of Los Angeles freeways. A new study reveals that after short-term exposure to vehicle pollution, mice show significant brain damage — including signs associated with memory loss and Alzheimer's disease.

Constantinos Sioutas of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmenal Engineering developed technology for recreating polluted air in the laboratory for controlled study

The mind-numbing toxin is not an exhaust gas, but a mix of tiny particles from burning fossil fuel and the weathering of car parts and pavement, according to the study to be published Thursday, April 7 in the leading journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Many studies have drawn a link between vehicle pollution and health problems. This is the first to explore the physical effect of freeway pollution on brain cells. Study co-author Constantinos Sioutas of the USC Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering found a way to recreate air laden with freeway particulate matter inside the laboratory. Brain cells living in test tubes and in the brains of live mice showed similar responses: Neurons involved in learning and memory showed significant damage.

The brain showed signs of inflammation associated with premature aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Neurons from developing mice did not grow as well.

The freeway particles measured between a few dozen to 200 nanometers — roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair, and too small for car filtration systems to trap. “You can’t see them, but they are inhaled and have an effect on brain neurons that raises the possibility of long-term brain health consequences of freeway air,” said senior author Caleb Finch, an expert in the effects of inflammation and holder of the ARCO/William F. Kieschnick Chair in the Neurobiology of Aging. (For all co-authors and access to the study visit: http://ehponline.org/article/info:doi/10.1289/ehp.1002973)

Co-author Constantinos Sioutas, holder of the Fred Champion Professorship in Civil and Environmental Engineering, developed the unique technology for collecting freeway particulates in a liquid suspension and recreating polluted air in the laboratory. This made it possible to conduct a controlled study on cultured brain cells and live animals. Visit the Sioutas lab website at http://www.usc.edu/aerosol

Exposure lasted a total of 150 hours, spread over 10 weeks, in three sessions per week lasting five hours each. “Of course this leads to the question, ‘How can we protect urban dwellers from this type of toxicity?’ And that’s a huge unknown,” Finch said.

The authors hope to conduct follow-up studies on issues such as:

* Memory functions in animals exposed to freeway particulates;
* Effects on development of mice exposed prenatally;
* Lifespan of exposed animals;
* Interaction of particulates with other components of smog, such as heat and ozone;
* Potential for recovery between periods of exposure, comparison of effects from artificially and naturally occurring nanoparticles; and
* Chemical interactions between freeway particulates and brain cells.

If further studies confirm that freeway particulates pose a human health hazard, solutions will be hard to find. Even an all-electric car culture would not solve the problem on its own, Finch said. “It would certainly sharply decrease the local concentration of nanoparticles, but then at present electrical generation still depends upon other combustion processes — coal — that in a larger environment contribute nanoparticles anyway.

Media coverage of particulate research  
MSNBC: "Your commute is making you stupid, study suggests"
Discover: "New Freeway Danger: Roadside Air Pollution Causes Brain Damage in Mice"
The Week: "Does Pollution Cause Brain Damage?"
L.A. Times: "Freeway air pollution linked to brain damage in mice"
Time: "Freeway Air Pollution Linked to Brain Damage in Mice"
“It’s a long-term global project to reduce the amount of nanoparticles around the world. Whether we clean up our cars, we still have to clean up our power generation.”

The study by Finch and his colleagues adds to other evidence on the health dangers of vehicle pollution. Research by preventive medicine faculty in the Keck School of Medicine of USC has linked proximity to freeways with increased risk of asthma and, most recently, autism. Autopsies of adults in Mexico found signs of brain inflammation and premature aging in subjects from Mexico City compared to ones from the less polluted city of Veracruz.

Prior research by Sioutas found inflammatory responses in the brains of rodents exposed to freeway air, but did not study the effect of freeway particulates on brain cells (study here). The Environmental Health Perspectives study brought together research from four USC units: the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, the Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, the Keck School of Medicine, and the Viterbi School of Engineering.

In addition to senior author Finch and Sioutas, the research team consisted of lead author Todd Morgan, a doctoral student in gerontology, with fellow student David Davis and research lab technician Nahoko Iwata; neuroscientist Michel Baudry and chemist Nicos Petasis of the USC Dornsife College, with students Jeremy Tanner, David Snyder, Yu-Tien Hsu and Jeremy Winkler; Sioutas' Viterbi School students Zhi Ning and Winnie Kam; and environmental health expert Jiu-Chiuan Chen, of the Keck School of Medicine.

Funding came through grants from USC’s James H. Zumberge Faculty Research & Innovation Fund and the Ellison Medical Foundation.