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Air pollution linked to autism, schizophrenia in new study

Scott Sutherland
Meteorologist/Science Writer

Friday, June 6, 2014, 5:23 PM - With all the air pollution we are exposed to on a daily basis, researchers have been keen to find out exactly what effects come from the toxic particles that make up a large percentage of what we breathe in. Asthma, lung disease and heart disease are certainly the most common ailments linked to it, but more recent research has been pointing to neurological effects as well, possibly contributing to rising cases of autism and schizophrenia.

Exposing mice to air pollution levels that would match what a person living in a typical large city would experience, researchers at the University of Rochester found that it caused inflammation all throughout the brains of the affected mice. Also, they noticed that chambers in the brain that contain cerebrospinal fluid - called the lateral ventricles - were up to three times larger than they should be.

"When we looked closely at the ventricles, we could see that the white matter that normally surrounds them hadn't fully developed," Deborah Cory-Slechta, Ph.D., a professor of Environmental Medicine who led the study, said in a press release.  "It appears that inflammation had damaged those brain cells and prevented that region of the brain from developing, and the ventricles simply expanded to fill the space."

Professor Cory-Slechta, along with research assistant professor Joshua Allen, talk about the research in this video:

While the results are compelling, one caveat for this study is that it was conducted using mice, and not all studies using mice carry over perfectly to humans. Still, scientists have known for some time that ultrafine particles are the worst, since they are small enough to completely bypass the defenses of our bodies. However, while many air quality monitoring programs routinely gather data on, and have rigorous standards for, fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and course particulate matter (PM10), agencies have only recently approached the idea of adding standards for ultrafine particles.

“I think these findings are going to raise new questions about whether the current regulatory standards for air quality are sufficient to protect our children,” Cory-Slechta said in the statement

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