Today (15 June 2023), Alzheimer’s Research UK, and Race Against Dementia (RAD), a charity founded by Jackie Stewart OBE, have announced their half a million pound pledge to better understand the link between air pollution and dementia.
Researchers 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.
The announcement comes on Clean Air Day, a national campaign that encourages people to take action on air pollution.
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 research is yet to uncover the mechanism behind this link.
The funding will allow Dr Jake Brooks at the University of Warwick to investigate the effects of metal-containing pollution particles that make their way into the brain. Dr Brooks originally trained as an engineer and will apply this expertise to this pioneering project. He 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.
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, the charities say that taking action to better understand and reduce risk factors like air pollution is vital.
Commenting on the news, Dr Jake Brooks, Race Against Dementia Fellow at University of Warwick, 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.”
Dr Susan Mitchell, Head of Policy at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said:
“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.
“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.”
Sir Jackie Stewart, OBE, Founder of Race Against Dementia, said:
“The impact of air pollution on our health has been in the headlines for several years now, but only recently have we begun to recognise its effect on our brains. Jake has turned his hand from engineering to dementia research to tackle this issue.
His disruptive approach – taking ideas from other disciplines – is exactly the type of out of the box thinking we need to beat dementia.”
Dr Brooks will also be part of the RAD Fellowship Programme, an international development scheme for the most promising dementia researchers, exposing them to high-performance cultures found in Formula 1 and innovative technology companies. The aim is to maximise the academic and personal potential of each RAD Fellow, allowing them to fast-track dementia research, becoming leaders in their field.
Alzheimer’s Research UK will be discussing the research in more detail at today’s All Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution meeting in Parliament.