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Brains are affected by air pollution.

The air pollution that results from the millions of cars and trucks that crowd our highways is ugly stuff — there’s no doubt that the particulate matter it’s laced with causes respiratory illness, heart disease, cancer, and other devastating health effects. As bad as that is, we still might not be properly grasping the extent of the danger air pollution presents — researchers at USC have now linked freeway air pollution to increased brain damage in mice. And they’re concerned humans might suffer similarly.

The LA Times reports that “exposure to pollution particles roughly one-thousandth the width of a human hair has been linked to brain damage in mice, including signs associated with memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease, according to a USC study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.”

The study involved utilizing a technology that helped scientists simulate freeway air — it allowed them to hold particulates from auto emissions in liquid suspension in order to recreate a highway-like environment. Mice were then subjected to the faux highway air over long periods of time — similar durations that humans breathe the stuff in throughout their daily lives.

So what happened to the mice? Increased damage to brain tissue, in ways that appear similar to the kind of damage that causes memory loss and Alzheimer’s. And the authors of the report believe that humans are prone to similar damage as well.

Todd Morgan, lead author of the new study and a research professor in gerontology at USC explained his findings thusly, the Times reports: “Our data would suggest that freeway pollution could have a profound effect on the development of neurons and brain health in children and young kids, especially those who attend schools built alongside freeways.”

Not good. It’s been a long battle to get emissions standards in vehicles as tight as they are today — and those standards are laughable compared to many developed nations’ — but this is even further evidence that we haven’t gone nearly far enough. What we really need is a combined effort to clamp down on auto emissions, and a plan to expand mass transit in congested areas — no wonder so many eyes are on the LA mayor’s 30/10 plan to build 30 years worth of transit projects in just ten.