Air pollution’s effect on brain: How it’s raising risk of Parkinson’s disease | Health

Air pollution kills 7 million people prematurely every year as per WHO and deteriorates our lung, heart and brain health over a period of time. Particulate matter that can range from 0.01 microns to 300 microns can enter our blood stream and go deep into the lungs. Air pollution can also cause inflammation in the brain leading to cell injury. A recent study published in the journal, Movement Disorders – Air Pollution and the Risk of Parkinson’s Disease: A Review – explored how air pollution could be increasing the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease.

Parkinson’s disease, is a brain disorder, that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination. (Unsplash)

The study discusses how components of air pollution reach the brain through the bloodstream or breathing through the nose and wreaks havoc. Pollutants and toxins can be poisonous to the nervous system and cause inflammation, which can increase the accumulation of alpha-synuclein – a protein found in the brain that plays a key role in Parkinson’s and decrease the number of dopaminergic neurons. Air pollution can also cause gut inflammation and the local accumulation of alpha synuclein which can then spread from the gastrointestinal tract (the gut) through the vagus nerve into the brain, leading to a loss of dopamine. (Also read: Can air pollution cause infertility in women? How toxic air takes a toll on women’s reproductive health)

What is Parkinson’s disease

Parkinson’s disease, is a brain disorder, that causes unintended or uncontrollable movements, such as shaking, stiffness, and difficulty with balance and coordination. While those over 50 are more at risk of it, early-onset Parkinson’s can affect around 5-10% of people. The neurodegenerative disorder affects the dopamine-producing neurons in the area of the brain called substantia nigra. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain that acts as a chemical messenger and communicates messages between brain nerve cells and rest of the body. According to WHO, 92 per cent of the world’s population lives in areas that has unhealthy air. According to, secondary parkinsonism occurs when symptoms similar to Parkinson’s disease are caused by certain medicines, a different nervous system disorder, or another illness.

“Parkinson’s disease is a neurodegenerative disease of the brain, idiopathic in nature and usually occurs after 60 years of age but it may occur early also especially the secondary Parkinsonism. Parkinson’s is caused by a number of genetic and environmental factors including exposure to toxins, carbon monoxide poisoning, drugs, smoking, head trauma, boxing, brain stroke and so on,” says Dr Jaideep Bansal- Director and HOD – Neurology, Fortis Hospital Shalimar Bagh.

Mounting evidence shows that air pollution increase risk of developing the neurodegenerative disease including Parkinsonism.

“Exposure to air pollution causes about 25% increased risk of Parkinson’s disease. Risk is further increased with long-term exposure to air pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitric dioxide. Some of these air pollutants are so tiny that once inhaled, enter the bloodstream then enter the brain by breaching the blood-brain barrier. Once in the brain, it is thought that air pollutants may trigger inflammation and damage nerve cells,” adds Dr Bansal.

Telltale signs of Parkinson’s disease

In Parkinson’s disease, patient’s routine activities of daily living become slow, they walk with short steps and have a tendency to fall. People may have expressionless faces, stooped posture, stiffness in the body, tremors in hand, forgetfulness, drooling of saliva and so on. Parkinson’s disease is progressive and disabling disease. Air pollution is a potentially preventable risk factor for Parkinsonism,” says Dr Bansal.

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