Exposure to environmental toxins may be at the root of the rise in neurological disorders

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The mystery behind the astronomical rise in neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s could be caused by exposure to environmental toxins that are ubiquitous but poorly understood, leading doctors warn.

At a conference Sunday, the nation’s leading neurologists and neuroscientists will highlight recent research efforts to fill the huge scientific gap in understanding the role environmental toxins (air pollution, pesticides, microplastics, everlasting chemicals and more) play. in increasingly common diseases such as dementias. and child development disorders.

Humans can encounter a staggering 80,000 or more toxic chemicals while working, playing, sleeping and learning, so many that it’s nearly impossible to determine their individual effects on a person, let alone how they might interact or have cumulative impacts on the system highly strung. throughout a life.

Some contact with environmental toxins is unavoidable given the proliferation of plastics and chemical pollutants, as well as the US regulatory approach, but exposure is uneven.

In the US, communities of color, indigenous peoples, and low-income families are much more likely to be exposed to a myriad of pollutants through unsafe housing and water, agricultural and manufacturing jobs, and proximity polluting highways and industrial plants, among other dangers.

Genetic makeup likely plays a role in people’s susceptibility to the pathological effects of different chemicals, but research has shown higher rates of cancer and respiratory disease in communities with environmental problems.

Very little is known about the impact on brain and nervous system disorders, but there is a growing consensus that genetics and aging do not fully explain the sharp rise in once-rare diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a degenerative disease more likely in military veterans and neighborhoods with heavy industry.

Neurologists and their surgical counterparts, neurosurgeons, will highlight the research gap at the annual meeting of the American Neurological Association (ANA) in Chicago.

“Neurology is about 15 years behind cancer, so we need to sound the alarm on this and get more people doing research because the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] it doesn’t protect us at all,” said Frances Jensen, president of the ANA and director of the Department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dozens of well-known dangerous toxins, such as asbestos, glyphosates, and formaldehyde, continue to be widely used in agriculture, construction, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics in the US, even though they are banned elsewhere. Earlier this week, The Guardian reported on corporate efforts to influence the EPA and hide a possible link between the popular herbicide Paraquat and Parkinson’s.

Jensen added: “It’s like dark matter, there are so many unknowns…it’s really going to be an epic exploration using the most advanced science we have.”

Neurology is the branch of medicine that focuses on disorders of the nervous system: the brain, spinal cord, and sensory neural elements such as the ears, eyes, and skin. Neurologists treat strokes, multiple sclerosis, migraines, Parkinson’s, epilepsy, and Alzheimer’s, as well as children with neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD, autism, and learning disabilities.

The brain is the most complex and important organ in the body, and probably the most sensitive to environmental toxins, but it was largely inaccessible to researchers until sophisticated molecular, genetic, and imaging techniques were developed in the last 20 years.

In the future, the research could help explain why people who live in neighborhoods with high levels of air pollution have a higher risk of stroke, as well as examine links between fetal exposure and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Rick Woychik, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, said: “It’s not just about pesticides. PFAS chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment, as are nanoplastics. And there are trillions of dollars in demand for nanomaterials, but worryingly little we know about their toxicology.”

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