Halting the Rise of Parkinson’s
Monday, April 24, 2023
Quality of life, health, and longevity are being increasingly tied to someone’s zip code rather than their genetic code. Cancer, heart disease, neurodegenerative disorders, and even our ability to fight infection are linked to the myriad of chemicals we are exposed to, often unwittingly, over the course of our lives. The University of Rochester’s leadership in the field of environmental medicine stretches back to toxicology research programs developed at the University under the Manhattan Project. These programs also served as the basis for the formation of a NIEHS Center of Excellence in environmental toxicology and health that is one of the oldest in the country celebrating 50 years of sustained funding. This foundation and the decades of work that followed—coupled with the recognition that the public health threat requires a collaborative commitment to research, education, and community engagement—led to the creation of the new Institute for Human Health and the Environment.
Paige Lawrence, PhD, the Wright Family Research Professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Medicine, is the founding director of the new Institute. “Genetics only explaining 10 to 15 percent of human health, which leaves the rest to the environment,” said Lawrence. “If we really want to have an impact on health, environmental influences need to be front and center.”
The new Institute will help power a team of neurologists, neuroscientists, toxicologists, epidemiologists, and researchers at the University of Rochester who are examining the impact of environmental chemical exposure on the brain. One disease in particular stands out. Parkinson’s is the fastest growing neurodegenerative disease in the world, outpacing even Alzheimer’s, and a growing number of scientists are linking the disease’s rise to air pollution, pesticides, and a ubiquitous chemical pollutant.
Up the nose it goes
Air pollution is associated with many health problems, including asthma, heart disease, stroke, low birth weight, and inflammation. While epidemiological studies have hinted at the link between air pollution and neurological disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, the route these chemicals use to make their way into the brain, and the damage caused once there, was until recently poorly understood.
“We’ve known that air pollution has effects on the heart and the lung for a very long time, but it's really only been in about the past ten years that attention has been directed to its effects on the brain,” said Debbie Cory-Slechta, PhD, a professor of Environmental Medicine, Neuroscience, and Public Health Sciences. Cory-Slechta’s colleagues at the University of Rochester, Guenter Oberdoerster, PhD, and Alison Elder, PhD, were among the first to show that ultra-fine air pollution particles, called PM0.1, are able to hitch a ride directly into the brain via the nasal passage and olfactory nerves, bypassing the brain’s normal defenses.
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