Neurodegenerative Disease: The Long-term Consequences of Early Life Environmental Exposures

March 24, 2016
1:00 pm US Eastern Time

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According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2015 statistics, every 67 seconds someone in the US develops Alzheimer’s, making the disease the 6th leading cause of death in the country. According to the National Parkinson Foundation, the CDC rated complications due to Parkinson’s as the 14th top cause of death in the US. What these few statistics make clear is Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other neurodegenerative diseases are a significant public health concern. In addition, more people are being diagnosed at younger ages for what used to be considered only “late life” health problems. While research suggests heredity can play a key role in disease development, exposures to pollutants and other toxic chemicals may also be a contributing factor.

Emerging research suggests that air pollution, for example, can impact the neurological system, particularly that of pediatric populations. Exposure to air pollutants has been shown to result in neuroinflammation which can in turn undermine healthy brain development. This may have short-term consequences, such as learning and developmental delays, but it may also predispose people to neurodegenerative diseases later in life, such as Alzheimer’s.

Similarly, exposures to pesticides appear to contribute to Parkinson’s pathogenesis, especially in vulnerable populations. For instance, research has shown that farmers, whose exposure to the chemicals in pesticides can accumulate over decades, are more prone to developing Parkinson’s.

Based on the science, it’s become increasingly clear that possible contributors to neurodegenerative disease need to be addressed across the lifespan starting with prenatal exposures. On this call, Dr. Calderon from the University of Montana and Dr. Ritz from the UCLA School of Public Health discussed their intriguing research on the mechanisms by which exposures to toxicants might contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s respectively.

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Lilian Calderón-Garcidueñas, MA, MD, PhD, is a professor at the College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences, University of Montana. Her pathology and neuropathology training at the University of Toronto were followed by her pediatric neuropathology fellowship at Harvard University and her first position as an Assistant professor at Northwestern University in Chicago. She earned an American Board in Anatomical Pathology and Neuropathology in 1981. Her interest for clinical environmental research took her back to Chapel Hill, North Carolina where she earned a PhD in Toxicology in 2001, followed by three years as a postdoctoral fellow in Environmental Pathology. Her research now focuses on the effects of air pollutants upon the developing brain, including her emerging work in Mexico City where children with high exposures to both fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone show systemic inflammation, immunodysregulation at both systemic and brain levels, oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, small blood vessel pathology, and an intrathecal inflammatory process, along with the early neuropathological hallmarks for Alzheimer and Parkinson's diseases.        

Beate Ritz, MD, PhD, is Professor and Vice Chair of the Epidemiology Department at the UCLA School of Public Health. She also hold an appointment in the UCLA School of Medicine's Neurology Department. Dr. Ritz received her MD and a PhD in Medical Sociology from the University of Hamburg Germany. She was a research fellow and resident at the Psychiatric University-Hospital in Hamburg from 1987-1989, and received doctoral training and a PhD degree in Epidemiology in 1995 from UCLA. Her research focuses on the health effects of occupational and environmental toxins such as pesticides, ionizing radiation, and air pollution on chronic diseases including neurodegenerative disorders (Parkinson’s disease), cancers, and adverse birth outcomes and asthma. For the past decade, she studied the effects of air pollution on adverse birth outcomes as well as asthma in children in Southern California. In 2006, she received the Robert M Zweig Memorial award for outstanding achievement in air quality and medicine from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. She also spend the past 15 years investigating the long-term effects of pesticide exposures on Parkinson’s disease and cancers and is currently conducting a project to implement a Parkinson’s disease registry required by a new law in California.

The call was moderated by Elise Miller, MEd, CHE's Director, and recorded for the call archive.