How does air pollution affect the lungs and nerve cells in the brain?

Regular exposure to polluted air, especially at high levels of pollution, is associated with acute and chronic respiratory inflammation. However, the causal links between the health effects of inhaling minute pollutant particles are difficult to prove, especially for chronic effects of prolonged contact. In a new research project, the Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors in Dortmund (IfADo) and Italian colleagues are investigating the effects of air pollution on the lungs and neuronal activities of the brain.

Photo: MasterTux/

Inflammation is part of the complex biological protective reaction of the human body to harmful stimuli, such as pollutants in the air. The mucous membranes in the respiratory tract are the first point of contact when harmful pathogens are inhaled. As a rule, inhaled larger particles can be prevented from further penetration into the body here. In the research project, the focus is therefore particularly on the tiny particles that can overcome the lung barrier, enter the bloodstream and thus reach the entire body – including the brain.

Which aerosols can damage the nervous system?

The main goal of the research team is, in a first step, to identify and characterise the properties of certain types of fine and ultra-fine atmospheric aerosol from an area in the Po Valley in Italy. Aerosols are finely dispersed solid or liquid particles suspended in the air and are found, for example, in cigarette smoke, mist from a spray can or soot from a car exhaust.

In a second step, they want to analyse which aerosols exactly are involved in triggering inflammation-promoting reactions in the lungs and brain in case of prolonged contact. In this way, the researchers want to define aerosol characteristics that trigger pro-inflammatory reactions in the lungs in the aforementioned environment in Italy. In the third step, detailed profiles of the toxic effects of the previously characterised samples will be established using cell-based methods, with IfADo investigating possible neurotoxic effects.

Project name:
Redox-activity and health-effects of atmospheric primary and secondary aerosol (RHAPS)

Cooperation partner:

  • The Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate of Italy’s National Council of Research (CNR-ISAC)
  • The Institute for Biomedical Technologies of Italy’s National Council of Research (CNR-ITB)
  • National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA)
  • University Mailand (UNIMI)
Scientific Contact:
PD Dr. Christoph van Thriel
Head of Group Neurotoxicology and Chemosensation
Phone: +49 231 1084-407

Lea Drescher
Research Associate
Phone: +49 231 1084-205

Press Contact:
Anne Rommel
Press Officer
Phone: +49 231 1084-239