Charities pledge half a million pounds to better understand the link between air pollution and dementia

clean air day

By Arjun Sanganee | Wednesday 14 June 2023

Today – on Clean Air Day – Alzheimer’s Research UK and Race Against Dementia have announced a half a million pound pledge to better understand the link between air pollution and dementia.

With these funds, Dr Jake Brooks at the University of Warwick will unravel how certain air pollution particles enter the brain and cause Alzheimer’s disease. The results could help shape air pollution policy measures and help reduce people’s risk of developing dementia in the future.

Poor air quality is a significant public health issue, and more evidence is emerging around the harmful effects that air pollution has on brain health and cognitive abilities. But, as we wrote about in our recent blog, research is yet to uncover the mechanism behind this link.

This new research project, which we’ll be speaking about today at a parliamentary event, will investigate the effects of metal-containing pollution particles that make their way into the brain. Dr Brooks will study the properties of these particles and how they interact with hallmark proteins in Alzheimer’s disease, such as tau, to cause damage to brain cells.  

The research will focus on an area of the brain called the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for our sense of smell, and typically one of the first brain regions to show a build-up of abnormal tau protein in people with Alzheimer’s. The olfactory bulb is particularly vulnerable to airborne pollution particles that are inhaled through the nose.

Commenting on the news, Dr Brooks said:

“It’s well known that high levels of air pollution pose a danger to our health, leading to serious lung conditions, heart disease and cancer. But now there is a growing body of evidence that suggests air pollution could also be putting us at a greater risk of developing dementia, but we don’t know how this happens. Thanks to this new funding, I’ll explore how tiny metal-containing pollution particles may accumulate and distribute in the brain, and how they associate with Alzheimer’s disease proteins like tau and amyloid.”

Based on available data, the World Health Organisation recently revised and reduced its recommended pollution exposure limits, yet most of the world’s population live in areas which breach these recommendations. Over the next few years, the research findings could help inform national policy measures to reduce air pollution at scale, and the resulting harm to our brain health.

With no treatments currently available in the UK that can slow or stop the onset of dementia, we believe that taking action to better understand and reduce risk factors like air pollution is vital.

“Over 1.2 million people in the UK will have dementia by 2040, shockingly, that’s 30% more than the number of people living with the condition today. Now more than ever, it is vital that we invest in research that will help us to better understand what causes the condition.” Said our Head of Policy, Dr Susan Mitchell

She continued: “As individuals, there is little we can do about the air we breathe, so we need Government action to tackle poor air quality. We’re really proud that, for the first time, we’re funding a project that we believe will go far to uncover what is really happening in our brains when we are exposed to certain types of air pollution.”

Want to find out more about air pollution and dementia? Come along to our online Lab Notes session at 12.30pm on 31 August, when experts including Dr Jake Brooks will talk about their research and how the two issues are connected. Sign up now on our Lab Notes page.

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Arjun Sanganee