How Does Air Pollution Affect Brain Health?
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Air Pollution and Brain Health

Published on Sep 16, 2022 and last reviewed on Apr 10, 2023   -  4 min read


Neurological disorders are associated with air pollution causing a high risk to the central nervous system in children and adults due to inhaled toxins.


Dust particles can cause serious health issues due to harmful and toxic substances present in the air. These particulate matters are often linked with various respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. However, its association with neurological conditions has also been recognized in multiple studies which show the effect these pollutants have on brain development and other related conditions.

How Does Air Pollution Affect the Brain?

Air pollution contains contaminants like toxic gasses, heavy metals, and particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), which cause brain-related disorders affecting the brain's functioning, development, and quality of life. Exposure to pollutants in the air causes inflammation in the brain as a defensive mechanism to fight these toxic substances, but chronic inflammation can be fatal to the brain.

  • Dementia and Cognitive Function - Various studies show that metabolic and oxidative deformity or irregularity in the brain is associated with air pollution leading to a defective insulin signaling process, causing a high risk of dementia and low cognitive function. It has also been found that resistance to glucose can cause memory loss, and the inability to absorb glucose due to insulin resistance in the cerebrum can develop the risk of dementia. Also, exposure to PM2.5 dust can produce changes in the structure and functioning of mitochondria and cause cognitive and neurological impairments.

  • Stroke - Various stroke incidences show an association of increased risk of stroke due to particulate matter in the air, causing thrombosis in blood vessels. These dust particles in air pollution can cause acute coronary syndromes, thrombosis, atherosclerosis, arrhythmia, and inflammation as an underlying cause of stroke. In addition, some toxins in the air, such as NO2 and PM10, can cause ischemic stroke.

  • Depression - Studies show that air pollution affects cortisol levels in the brain, and glucocorticoid sensitivity to the brain can cause depression in people because cortisol is a stress hormone and can lead to depression and cognition in people. The central nervous system (CNS) reacts to stress through the pituitary gland and hypothalamus, which help secrete high cortisol levels in the brain. Thus, air pollution activates glucocorticoid receptors, related neurotrophic factors, and other inflammatory reactions, which cause neurotoxicity and neurogenesis, leading to depression and impaired neurological conditions.

  • ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) - Various studies show air pollution and its association with child brain development.PM2.5 and NO2 concentrations in the air in residential areas have significantly increased ADHA risks in children. In addition, some studies suggest that late pregnancy exposure to particulate matter in air pollution can also reduce the corpus callosum region of the brain.

  • Neurodevelopment - Brain development can get significantly affected by the particulate matter in air pollution, which contains harmful elements such as arsenic, lead, methylmercury, etc., which have a neurotoxic effect. It has also been found that these pollutants in the air can affect brain development more in fetal life than in childhood because the maximum structure of the brain develops during the infancy period and causes brain damage and neuro impairment in later life.

  • Schizophrenia - This is a chronic mental disorder affecting millions of people around the world and has more prevalence in urban areas. An association of particulate matter, NO2, and SO2 with an increased risk of schizophrenia are discussed in various studies. Moreover, the worsening symptoms of schizophrenia were found to be associated with high levels of PM2.5, especially in patients above 65 years old.

  • Multiple Sclerosis - is a neurodegenerative and inflammatory disease of the central nervous system. Studies have shown the association between particulate matter and multiple sclerosis through various hypotheses. For example, 1) the Lungs absorb particulate matter through the respiratory tract, causing activation of T- cells by pulmonary inflammation and causing the brain to secrete cytokinin, and 2) the Olfactory bulb absorbs particulate matter directly and causes inflammation in the brain. This leads to a condition called multiple sclerosis. Also, environmental pollution, dust particles, and smoke can cause DNA modification and lead to multiple sclerosis.

How Air Pollution Affects the Central Nervous System?

The toxic particles in the environment travel through the olfactory nerve into the brain, blood-brain barrier, vagus nerve, etc., or via the olfactory bulb as a direct route for absorption into the nervous system. Air pollution is found to affect the brain through two processes that are oxidative stress and inflammation reactions. Oxidative stress was related to the toxins released by diesel vehicles which can affect the neurons and microglial cells and lead to neurodegenerative conditions. It has also been associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson's disease in some studies showing an increase in frontal, temporal, and midbrain exposure to air pollutants.

  • Exposure to air contaminants must be reduced to fight neurological diseases through pollution.

  • Antioxidant supplements such as vitamins C and E can fight against oxidative stress caused by particulate matter in the brain.

  • Cardiovascular exposure to toxic contaminants in the air can be mitigated by the help of unsaturated fatty acids (olive oil and fish oil).

  • Dietary Vitamin B can be used to reduce the gene methylation in mitochondria caused by PM2.5.

  • Apart from this, using gasoline vehicles in place of diesel motors can reduce pollution and its impact on health.


Air pollution causes serious health risks and is found to be a harmful environmental factor causing deaths in millions every year worldwide. The particulate matter in the air consisting of toxic gasses, organic and inorganic compounds, heavy metals, and toxins released from vehicle pollution, deteriorates a person's health. It causes various skin, cardiovascular, respiratory, and neurological diseases. In addition, studies show how neurotoxicants present in the air damage the brain and cause multiple psychiatric disorders. However, researchers are still finding better intervention methods to treat mental health caused by pollution and ways to minimize them.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Are the Air Pollutants Damaging the Brain?

The air pollutants causing damage to human health are ground-level ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead. But the pollutants causing damage to the brain are nitrogen oxides, which cause neuroinflammation, oxidative stress, and systemic inflammation.


Are Air Quality and Mental Health Related to One Another?

Researchers have found that increased air pollution can cause significant mental health problems. Air pollutants can cause brain changes and increase the risk of dementia, learning issues, and Alzheimer's disease. Some researchers have also concluded an increase in suicides related to air pollution.


How Does Air Pollution Affect Health?

Exposure to air pollutants can cause adverse health effects, such as:
- Heart disease. 
- Stroke. 
- Lung cancer. 
- Chronic obstructive lung disease. 
- Lower respiratory tract infections. 
- Tracheal cancer. 
- Bronchial cancer. 
- Aggravated asthma


Does Air Pollution Cause Memory Issues?

Air pollution can damage the cognitive abilities of an individual and can cause depression and anxiety issues. However, living for years with the pollutants may cause an increased risk of memory impairment and Alzheimer’s disease. Evidence for memory loss due to air pollution is also available through research.


Which Kind of Pollution Is Detrimental to Health?

Among the various types of pollution, air pollution is the most detrimental to human health. Especially nitrogen oxides generated from engines and factories, which are the precursors for ground-level ozone, cause damage to the heart and lungs.


What Are the Causes for Air Pollution?

The common causes for air pollution are:
- Vehicles. 
- Burning of fossil fuels. 
- Gas used in homes. 
- Open burning of garbage waste products. 
- Microbial decay process. 
- Byproducts of power generation and manufacturing process. 
- Fumes from chemical factories.


Is Seattle Affected by Pollution?

Seattle is a city in America that ranks ninth on the list of American cities affected by air pollution. The city experiences 14.2 unhealthy pollution days a year on average. However, the United States Environmental Protection Agency recommends yearly no more than 3.2 unhealthy pollution days.


How Does a Person With ADHD Appear?

People with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) appear not to listen when spoken to directly. They may have difficulty following instructions and finishing their chores. As a result, they have trouble organizing their activities and avoid doing tasks requiring mental effort.


Are Autism and ADHD the Same?

Autism and ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are related to one another but are not the same. However, they may have similar symptoms, and having one disease can increase the chance of the other.


What Are the Triggers of ADHD?

he common triggers for ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) are poor sleep, stress, overstimulation, certain food items, additives, and technology. Once the triggers are identified, lifestyle modifications should be made to control the episodes. However, they can be caused by brain injury, premature delivery, low birth weight, and smoking and alcohol habits during pregnancy.


Is a Person With ADHD Considered Disabled?

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a developmental disability where the child has symptoms such as excessive talking, daydreaming, impulsive behavior, and conflict with peers. However, they may also have certain learning disabilities, such as difficulty in paying attention, inability to sit still for long periods, and negative effects on education.

Last reviewed at:
10 Apr 2023  -  4 min read




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