Your Brain on My Mind

Elise Miller, MEd, Director

A virtual flood of new studies on cognitive function influenced by air pollution, second-hand smoke, nutrition and other environmental factors has been published in the last couple weeks. One notable study on autism by researchers at UCSF and Stanford suggests that environmental conditions may contribute as much to autism as genetic heritability (Read more). Given that autism has long been considered almost exclusively “genetic”, this research will likely have a profound impact on how scientists, health professionals and parents think about how autism may occur in some individuals and not in others and why the numbers of those diagnosed with autism is significantly increasing.

Another study published in Molecular Psychiatry concluded that long-term exposure to air pollution can lead to physical changes in the brain, and prompt memory and learning problems, and even depression (Read more). In Pediatrics this week, research findings suggested that secondhand smoke exposure can increase the odds of developing certain mental and behavioral disorders by 50 percent (Read more). And in the most recent Environmental Health Perspectives, a study found associations between perfluorochemicals found in common consumer products and impulsivity and attention deficit disorder (Read more).

Additional examples include a fascinating exchange last week among researchers on CHE’s Neurodegenerative Disease and Environment listserv (cheneuro), regarding how and why wheat (as well as additives in wheat fertilizer such as lead and cadmium) may be associated with psychiatric problems and other mental health concerns (see a noted reference). And at the annual Teratology Society conference held in late June, a whole session was devoted to “Thyroid and Iodine: Impacts on Pregnancy and Child Health.” Several researchers presented on findings suggesting that suboptimal dietary iodine in women of reproductive age, along with exposures to other neurotoxicants in air, water and food, may undermine healthy thyroid function, thereby raising the risk of developing learning and neurobehavioral disorders (Read more).

If your mind is swimming now and you’re wondering about your own cognitive health just reading this, you’re not alone. Frankly, I would rather stop thinking about how and why our brains may not function as well as they could if we weren’t doused regularly in chemical contaminants. I would far prefer, as I think most of us would, that we could use our minds to their fullest potential simply creating and supporting healthy, vibrant communities—places in which everyone has meaningful work, nutritious food, preventive health care and access to nature.

But our work is cut out for us if we are ever going to achieve anything close to that vision. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson knows that better than anyone right now as she takes an unwavering stance against those willing to compromise human and environmental health for short-term economic gain (Read more).

In this multi-faceted, multi-layered effort, CHE’s role is to provide a centralized resource and forum for sharing and discussing the emerging science as well as incubating initiatives to translate the research into prevention-oriented public health policy. In that context, your expertise and insights are critical now more than ever. We want to learn from you so that our collective work is imbued with greater creativity and wisdom. Please join us in whatever ways are most meaningful, energizing and useful to you—by doing so, all of us will benefit.

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