A groundbreaking study conducted by researchers from Duke University School of Medicine has revealed a potential link between nanoplastics and neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Nanoplastics are tiny particles of plastic that can contaminate water and soil. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, found that these nanoparticles have an impact on a specific protein in the brain associated with these diseases.
The researchers initially conducted experiments using various nanoparticles for biomarker assays in the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease and dementia. Unexpectedly, they discovered that certain nanoparticles had a significant effect on aggregating a protein called alpha-synuclein, which is linked to brain diseases. These nanoparticles resembled those found in the environment, prompting further investigation.
Using three different models, including test tubes, cultured neurons, and a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease, the researchers found that nanoplastics made of polystyrene, commonly used in foam packaging peanuts and disposable drinking cups, caused the alpha-synuclein protein to accumulate. This accumulation was associated with changes in the protein’s structure that promote disease-related aggregation. Additionally, the nanoplastics impaired the lysosome, a cellular component responsible for clearing protein aggregates.
Nanoplastics are formed when larger plastic particles break down into smaller microplastics, which then degrade further into nanoplastics. A study published in 2022 revealed that people consume an average of 5 grams of microplastics and nanoplastics in their gastrointestinal tract every week. Previous research has shown that both microplastics and nanoplastics can have detrimental effects on human health.
This study adds to the growing body of research exploring the connection between nanoplastics and brain health. Previous studies have shown that exposure to micro- and nanoplastics can negatively impact the brain, increasing the risk of neuronal disorders and cognitive impairment.
Dr. Andrew West, the principal investigator of the study, emphasizes the need for technology to monitor plastic pollution and its potential accumulation in the human brain. By understanding the specific characteristics of harmful nanoplastics, policies and technologies can be developed to prevent their presence in food and water sources.
The next steps for this research involve conducting long-term experiments to determine the effects of different types of nanoplastics on various molecular processes associated with disease risk and progression. The researchers also aim to gain a better understanding of lifetime exposures to different nanoplastics to enhance the accuracy of their laboratory models.
Dr. Rocco DiPaola, a neurologist and director of the Movement Disorder Program at Hackensack Meridian Neuroscience Institute, commented on the study, stating that it adds to the understanding of the potential causes of Parkinson’s disease and other alpha-synuclein-related disorders. He emphasizes the role of environmental factors, in combination with genetic factors, in the development of these diseases.
To mitigate the risk of Parkinson’s disease and other types of dementia associated with environmental factors, Dr. DiPaola recommends limiting exposure to toxins, such as pesticides. While it may not be possible to eliminate all risks, taking steps to reduce exposure to environmental toxins can help minimize the risk of developing these neurological conditions.