Changing environment can have long-term, significant effects on the brain

Changes in a person's environment can have long-term, significant effects on the brain, whether it's the inhalation of wildfire smoke or the experience of childhood trauma. The findings will be presented on Tuesday, November 14, 11:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. at Neuroscience 2023, the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience and the world's largest source of emerging news about brain science and health.

The environment plays an important role in a person's brain health and cognitive function. Previous research has established that both one's physical and social environment effect the brain and nervous system. Next, researchers wanted to better understand the specific mechanisms of change involved in these complex interactions.

New findings show that:

  • At least four common environmental pollutants are associated with brain structure changes such as thinning of the cortex in several areas in the human brain. (Christian Habeck, Columbia University)
  • After exposure to wildfire smoke, the mouse hippocampus exhibited markers of neurodegenerative disease and aggrephagy (disposal of protein aggregates). (Andrew Ottens, Virginia Commonwealth University)
  • Early life adversity is associated with long-term effects in the brain, including thinning of the cortex and accelerating epigenetic age. Evidence suggests that these effects can potentially be inherited by future generations. (Leland Fleming, Mclean Hospital/Harvard Medical School)
  • Stressed mice show decreased protein expression levels of a peptide called apelin in the hippocampus. Researchers showed that four weeks of exercise can restore these levels in mice. Apelin seems to be important for mediating the antidepressant effect of physical exercise. (Sonata Suk-yu Yau, Hong Kong Polytechnic University)

Not only does this research give us a better understanding of environmental stressors and their long-term effects on the brain, but we also have a more nuanced understanding of how one's home and broader community environments can impact the brain as well. Continuing this research will help us better understand this unique interplay and come up with potential new therapies."

Catherine Jensen Peña, assistant professor of neuroscience at Princeton University and moderator of the press conference

This research was supported by national funding agencies including the National Institutes of Health and private funding organizations. Find out more about the environment's impact on the brain on

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

11:15 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. EST

Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Room 202B

Press conference summary

  • In general, these presentations focus on how the environment plays a role in our neurological health (and/or its associated disorders). Environmental factors can manifest physically (e.g., wildfires, pollutants) and socially (e.g., violence at a young age, physical activity at an older age).

Environmental pollutants are associated with cortical thinning in a lifespan sample

Christian Habeck, [email protected], Abstract PSTR072.21

  • Researchers quantified the concentration of 60 common environmental pollutants, including pesticides, industrial chemicals, and other contaminants, in the "blood exosome" of 147 healthy participants ages 20–80.
  • Five robust findings emerged in three brain areas correlating with four pollutants: cis-Chlordane and cis-Permethrin (both common biocides), Mirex (used in pesticides and flame retardants), and phenacetin (a synthetic analgesic). Mirex also exhibited a negative correlation with crystallized cognition.

Inhaled wildfire smoke particulate matter drives aberrant proteinopathy-related changes in adult mouse brain

Andrew Ottens, [email protected], Abstract PSTR018.09

  • Little is known about the impact of wildfire smoke and long-term chronic disorders, such as neurodegenerative disease.
  • After three weeks inhaling real-world wildfire smoke particulate for four hours a day, researchers found 785 of 2,649 proteins in mouse hippocampus significantly altered using an unbiased neuroportoemic investigation. They found abnormal accumulations in tau and amyloid proteins as well as an aggrephagic response designed to dispose of aggregating proteins.

Transgenerational impact of maternal early life adversity on cortical structure and epigenetic age acceleration

Leland Fleming, [email protected], Abstract PSTR295.14

  • Early childhood adversity can not only impact the brain and behavior but may also have impacts that are potentially passed between generations. Researchers studied 93 mothers with a history of early maltreatment. Mothers and their children were assessed by using structural MRI scans, trauma history, and DNA from saliva samples.
  • Mothers with exposure to multiple episodes of family violence showed lower cortical thickness in specific areas of the brain (i.e., inferior occipital cortex and fusiform cortex). There were significant associations between epigenetic aging and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postnatal depression, and abuse.
  • They also found a significant association between mothers with epigenetic age acceleration and that of their infants at 15 months.

Potential role of apelin in mediating the antidepressant effects of physical exercise

Sonata Suk-yu Yau, [email protected], Abstract PSTR226.05

  • Sarcopenia, a muscle aging condition, is strongly correlated with geriatric depression, but the exact muscle-brain crosstalk isn't well understood.
  • Using a mouse model of depression induced by chronic unpredictable stress, researchers studied apelin, a muscle-secreted peptide that is linked to sarcopenia and is also associated with hippocampal neuroplasticity and antidepressant effects.
  • Stressed mice had decreased protein expression of apelin and its receptor (APJ) in the hippocampus. Four weeks of voluntary physical activity, however, restored apelin levels and had an antidepressant effect. Knockout of apelin in skeletal muscle reduced the antidepressant effects of exercise whereas overexpression of muscle apelin elicited antidepressant effects. Apelin seems to mediate the crosstalk of the muscle-brain axis.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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