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Study Explores Ties Between Utah's Smoggy Air and Foggy Thinking

Anna M.
Flickr Creative Commons
The new study will look at how air pollution affects brain function in older adults.

What if air pollution spikes don’t just make it harder to breathe but also make it harder to think?

That’s a question Dustin Hammers wants to answer in a study getting underway at the University of Utah. He’s a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Utah’s Alzheimer’s Center who’s beginning a study on how spikes of wintertime pollution affect cognition.

“We know a lot about chronic, long-term air pollution, and what that can do to the body and to the brain,” he says. “But we don’t know a lot of information whatsoever about the intermittent, short burst of pollution like we have in the Wasatch Front during an inversion.”

Hammer’s focus is on cognition, including working memory and basic decision-making -- an area of air-pollution research that’s heating up. For this pilot study, his team is looking for changes in mood, memory and thinking skills before, during and after PM2.5 spikes. They’ll also measure key markers of biochemical stress, including Interleukin 1b and C-Reactive Protein.

Hammers says other research has shown fine and ultrafine particles of pollution can travel from the lungs to the brain.

“We don’t actually have a lot of studies that are looking at the short-term effects: Do these have long-term impacts over time?,” he explains. “The research just isn’t out there because we’re in such a unique geographic area.”

Hammers’ team is still looking for generally healthy people over age 60 to participate. And maybe someday they’ll be able to say whether that dirty fog in the valley skies makes our brains foggy too.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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