Neurotoxicology and Chemosensation

The nervous system is a unique, network-like structure of different cells that can come into direct contact with chemicals at the workplace. The group conducts research to protect the performance of our nervous system.

Head of department
Prof. Dr. Christoph van Thriel
Ardeystr. 67
44139 Dortmund

The nervous system continuously supplies the organism with information about its environment, but also about its own condition. This requires 100 billion nerve cells, just as many supporting glial cells, countless metres of nerve fibres, and everything must be continuously supplied with enormous amounts of oxygen and, through the bloodstream, with various nutrients. Although our nervous system has excellent barriers that protect it from environmental dangers, there are always intruders that can damage the fine structures of the nerve cells and fibres, i.e. have a neurotoxic effect. Classic examples are heavy metals such as lead and mercury, organic solvents or pesticides; recently, nanoparticles and nanomaterials have also been suspected of causing neurotoxic effects.

Above all, long-term contact with these hazardous substances, as can occur in the workplace, poses a risk to our nervous system that must be kept as low as possible. However, our chemosensory nerve fibres and receptors, especially the sense of smell, also ensure that we can detect and avoid chemicals in the environment. In workplaces, it is often not possible to avoid odour and sensory stimuli, but even these chemosensory effects must not have health consequences. It must not smell so strongly or burn in the eyes that workers are distracted from the actual task and mistakes happen.

The activation of sensory nerve fibres not only informs our brain, signal molecules are also released that inform the immune system about possible damage. Through the systematic combination of methods from life and behavioural sciences, research here ensures, on the one hand, the derivation of data on health-based limit values and, on the other hand, new insights into biological bases and modulators of neurotoxic and chemosensory effects that make the handling of chemicals in the workplace safer.