The air pollution that accumulates in busy cities isn’t just bad for the skyline; it could also do damage to the human brain. A new study has found tiny particles of air pollution in the brains of Alzheimer's patients — a finding that suggests the air pollution may be accelerating, or possibly causing, the neurodegenerative disease.

Particles of magnetite with distinctive characteristics that could be made only from a car engine were found in the brain tissue of patients with Alzheimer’s, the BBC reported. Although these particles do occur naturally in the brain, the particles found in the brain tissues were formed in a way that could be created only through the high temperatures of a car engine or braking system. Scientists already suspected the particles were toxic because the iron in them can react with oxygen and cause brain damage. However, these new findings show for the first time how pollutants from the air can find their way into the brain.

For the study, the team analyzed the brain tissue of 37 people, 29 of whom lived and died in Mexico City, an area with one of the highest levels of air pollution on the planet. The team suggest that the nanoparticles may be small enough to pass from the nose to the nervous system where they are then carried to the frontal cortex of the brain. Although the finding is surprising, it is still difficult to prove a direct link between air pollution and neurodegenerative diseases.

"There is no absolutely proven link at the moment but there are lots of suggestive observations - other people have found these pollution particles in the middle of the plaques that accumulate in the brain in Alzheimer's disease so they could well be a contributor to plaque formation,” Dr. David Allsop, co-author of the study, told the BBC.

Still, the research calls attention to the significant effect that air pollution can have on human health and the importance of reducing current levels.

Source: Allsop D, et al. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 2016

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