Science and Health

How Harmful Air Pollution Gets To Our Brains

Air pollution particles are tiny and can get into your body a number of ways.

How Harmful Air Pollution Gets To Our Brains
National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health

A recent study suggests air pollution is "making us dumber." But how do pollutants get to your brain to harm it in the first place?

Early research shows fine pollution particles can enter the brain directly through the nerve structure associated with smell. They can cause inflammation in nasal tissues and the lungs, which can release chemicals that affect brain chemistry. And researchers say they can also be absorbed through the skin. Experts say they need to do more research to learn exactly how these different transmissions work.

We're still learning about the damage these pollutants can do. In this new study, subjects in Asia with long-term pollution exposure scored lower on verbal and math tests. In earlier studies, brain scans showed pollution can cause the brain to shrink or increase the risk of silent strokes, which don't show any symptoms. 

Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Study: National Park Air Quality Is Similar To Largest US Cities

The study sampled 33 national parks and 20 of the largest U.S. metropolitan areas.


These particles are tiny — a quarter the diameter of a single hair or smaller. Protecting from exposure can be complicated and expensive, but there are some things anyone can do to protect themselves. Experts suggest staying indoors, making sure door and window seals are airtight, and getting a high-efficiency particulate air, or HEPA, filter. They also recommend avoiding vigorous exercise outside during smog alert days.