Freeway Commutes May Be Bad for the Brain

Traffic pollution affects learning and memory

By Daisy Lin
|  Friday, Apr 8, 2011  |  Updated 6:50 AM PDT
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Freeway Commutes May Be Bad for the Brain

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Particulate matter from air pollution damaged brain cells in mice.

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Freeway Commutes May Be Bad for the Brain

Prolonged exposure to freeway particulate matter can cause memory loss, heart and lung disease, and, according to a new study, brain damage.
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Traffic jams may be bad for your brain.

Prolonged exposure to freeway particulate matter can cause memory loss, heart and lung disease, and, according to a new study, brain damage.
 

Sitting in freeway traffic is a way of life in Southern California. In the process, commuters breathe in tiny particles from the burning of fossil fuel and the weathering of car parts and pavement. 

Todd E. Morgan and other researchers at USC recreated this environment inside a lab, and pumped in air laden with freeway particulate matter. They then exposed mice to the toxic fumes for 150 hours over the course of ten weeks.
 

“When we looked at the brains, we found that there was evidence that their brain was damaged by the exposure to these particles,” Morgan said.
 

Neurons involved in learning and memory showed damage, according to the study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. The brain also showed signs of inflammation associated with premature aging and Alzheimer’s disease. Neurons from developing mice did not grow well.

What does this mean for humans?
 

“We can only definitively say what happens to mice when they’re exposed to these particular particles,” Morgan said. “However, there is suggestive evidence that similar effects may be happening in humans.”

Children, whose developing brains are sensitive to toxins, may be at particular risk.

Morgan suggests that people protect themselves by avoiding exercise or activity near freeways or areas of high traffic.
 

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