Christine Curran, associate professor of biological sciences, examines how it affects more than just the lungs.
Dr. Curran’s research is in understanding how environmental toxicants affect the brain, leading to deficits in learning and memory and altered behavior. Understanding how genetic differences (polymorphisms) affect susceptibility or resistance to environmental toxicants such as polychlorinated biphenyls and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.
Watch out for the TRAP
The World Health Organization estimates that air pollution kills 7 million people each year and that 90% of the world’s population breathes unhealthy air.
Although most people understand that air pollution harms the lungs, that’s not the whole story. We are concerned, because air pollution can also harm the developing brain.
There is increasing evidence from many scientists around the world that air pollution can have lifelong impacts following exposure during pregnancy and early life. For example, children exposed to higher levels of pollution are more likely to have trouble with their school work, more likely to have behavioral problems, and more likely to suffer depression.
In our lab, we’re working to identify genetic differences that affect an individual’s susceptibility to traffic-related air pollution or TRAP. These chemicals can also be found in grilled food and cigarette smoke, so most of us are exposed to these pollutants every time we drive down the highway or enjoy a burger off the barbecue.
We use mice that have genetic differences similar to those found in humans. In this way, we can compare the effects of the same level of pollutant on mice with different genetic combinations. We can test their learning and memory, their coordination and balance, and their response to stressful conditions.
Then, we look inside the brain to see if there are have been significant changes in neurotransmitter levels. These chemicals are the primary tool the brain uses to communicate, and changes can affect everything from your mood to your ability to remember where you left your car keys.
Our early work definitely indicates that genetic differences affect susceptibility, and that information could help protect those at highest risk. By intervening early in life, there is hope we can mitigate the effects of traffic-related air pollution and improve the quality of life for those in highly polluted neighborhoods.