Weird Particle Floating Through Air May Cause Alzheimer’s

New research into tiny magnetic particles that float through the air may help scientists unravel the mysterious causes of Alzheimer's disease.

In a press release, Australia's University of Technology Sydney unveiled new research undertaken by some of its faculty into the possible link between Alzheimer's and magnetite, a pollutant most commonly associated with vehicle exhaust.

Despite all the research into the degenerative disease that causes memory loss and fatal cognitive decline, scientists still don't really know what causes Alzheimer's. They do know, however, that a vanishingly small percentage of people who develop it inherited the disease, which means that most people got it some other way.

"Fewer than one percent of Alzheimer’s cases are inherited," UTS associate professor Cindy Gunawan said, "so it is likely that the environment and lifestyle play a key role in the development of the disease."

As previous studies have shown, living in high-pollution areas seems to be a risk factor for developing Alzheimer's, and magnetite, which is also a byproduct of coal-burning industrial processes, is often found in larger amounts in the brains of people with the disease than those without.

With those links in mind, Gunawan and her colleagues at UTS, UNSW Sydney and Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research began exploring what air pollution does to the brains of mice, both predisposed to Alzheimer's and not, as well as to human neuron cells.

The scientists exposed the mice to nanoparticles of magnetite, iron, and diesel hydrocarbons over the course of four months and found that in the cohort predisposed to Alzheimer's, there were increased formations of the type of amyloid brain plaques associated with the disease as well as behavioral changes such as short-term memory loss and disorientation, which are all common symptoms of the disorder.

Beyond those results, the researchers also found that both the mice and the human neuron cells had immune responses when exposed to the magnetite including inflammation and oxidative stress, two factors that contribute to dementia.

Because it's such a common industrial byproduct — and known to build up in the brains of people without Alzheimer's as well — this research, which was published in the journal Environment International, could be important in better understanding the ways pollution affects cognitive functioning as a whole and not just for those who suffer from Alzheimer's.

It might not be microplastics, but tiny magnetic particles building up in our brains is a horrific enough thought without the associated risk of dementia tacked onto it.

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