Monday, June 26, 2017

ANS -- Men Can Be So Hormonal

I've been saying this for years -- ever since I had a time period when I was taking testosterone.  I gave me more confidence, but also increased the depth of my anger.  They don't mention that here -- because they weren't looking for it.  Interesting article.  It seems to impair judgement too.  Hmmmmmm....

Tim Peacock

"Does being over 40 make you feel like half the man you used to be?"

Ads like that have led to a surge in the number of men seeking to boost their testosterone. The Food and Drug Administration reports that prescriptions for testosterone supplements have risen to 2.3 million from 1.3 million in just four years.

There is such a condition as "low-T," or hypogonadism, which can cause fatigue and diminished sex drive, and it becomes more common as men age. But according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, half of the men taking prescription testosterone don't have a deficiency. Many are just tired and want a lift. But they may not be doing themselves any favors. It turns out that the supplement isn't entirely harmless: Neuroscientists are uncovering evidence suggesting that when men take testosterone, they make more impulsive — and often faulty — decisions.

Researchers have shown for years that men tend to be more confident about their intelligence and judgments than women, believing that solutions they've generated are better than they actually are. This hubris could be tied to testosterone levels, and new research by Gideon Nave, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, along with Amos Nadler at Western University in Ontario, reveals that high testosterone can make it harder to see the flaws in one's reasoning.

How might heightened testosterone lead to overconfidence? One possible explanation lies in the orbitofrontal cortex, a region just behind the eyes that's essential for self-evaluation, decision making and impulse control. The neuroscientists Pranjal Mehta at the University of Oregon and Jennifer Beer at the University of Texas, Austin, have found that people with higher levels of testosterone have less activity in their orbitofrontal cortex. Studies show that when that part of the brain is less active, people tend to be overconfident in their reasoning abilities. It's as though the orbitofrontal cortex is your internal editor, speaking up when there's a potential problem with your work. Boost your testosterone and your editor goes reassuringly (but misleadingly) silent.

Continue reading the main story

In a classic study conducted at the University of Wisconsin, college students taking final exams rated their confidence about each answer on a five-point scale, "one for a pure guess" and "five for very certain." Men and women both gave themselves high scores when they answered correctly. But what happened when they'd answered incorrectly? Women tended to be appropriately hesitant, but men weren't. Most checked "Certain" or "Very certain" when they were wrong, projecting as much confidence for their bad answers as for their good ones.

Men are also more likely to overestimate how well they'll perform compared with their peers. Researchers at Kiel University in Germany and at Oxford gave a group of adults a test that assesses judgment and reasoning called the Cognitive Reflection Test, or C.R.T.

To see what the C.R.T. looks like, try answering this question: A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

If you're like most people, your first thought is that the ball costs 10 cents. But that is incorrect. If the ball costs $0.10, and the bat costs $1.00 more (or $1.10), then the total would be $1.20. So the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1.05.

If you got this wrong, you're not alone. Even at Ivy League schools such as Harvard and Princeton, less than 30 percent of students answer all the questions correctly. This is how the clever questions are designed. There's an immediate, obvious answer that feels right but is actually wrong.

In the Kiel University study, both genders thought they'd scored higher on the test than they actually had. When asked to predict how others would fare, however, women expected other women to earn comparably high scores, but men thought they'd significantly outperform other men.

People don't like to believe that they're average. But compared with women, men tend to think they're much better than average.

If you feel your judgment is right, are you interested in how others see the problem? Probably not. Nicholas D. Wright, a neuroscientist at the University of Birmingham in Britain, studies how fluctuations in testosterone shape one's willingness to collaborate. Most testosterone researchers study men, for obvious reasons, but Dr. Wright and his team focus on women. They asked women to perform a challenging perceptual task: detecting where a fuzzy pattern had appeared on a busy computer screen. When women took oral testosterone, they were more likely to ignore the input of others, compared with women in the placebo condition. Amped up on testosterone, they relied more heavily on their own judgment, even when they were wrong.

The findings of the latest study, which have been presented at conferences and will be published in Psychological Science in January, offer more reasons to worry about testosterone supplements.

Dr. Nave and Dr. Nadler's team asked 243 men in Southern California to slather gel onto their shoulders, arms and chest. Half of the men rubbed in a testosterone gel, and the rest rubbed in a placebo. Once the gel dried, they put on their shirts and went about their day.

Four and a half hours later, enough time for their testosterone levels to peak and stabilize, the men returned to the lab. They sat down at a computer and took several tests — a math test, a mood questionnaire and the C.R.T.

For the men with extra testosterone, their moods hadn't changed much, but their ability to analyze carefully had. They were, on average, 35 percent more likely to make the intuitive mistake on the bat and ball question. They were also rushed in their bad judgment and gave incorrect answers faster than the men with normal testosterone levels, while taking longer to generate correct answers.

Some will shrug and say that making a mistake on a sneaky word problem isn't a concern in daily life, but researchers are discovering that these reasoning errors could affect financial markets. A team of neuroeconomists, led by Dr. Nadler, along with Paul J. Zak at Claremont Graduate University, gave 140 male traders either testosterone gel or a placebo. The next day, the traders came back into the lab and participated in an asset trading simulation.

The results are disturbing. Men with boosted testosterone significantly overpriced assets compared with men who got the placebo, and they were slower to incorporate data about falling values into their trading decisions. In other words, they created a trading bubble that was slow to pop. (Fortunately, Dr. Nadler didn't have these men participate in a real stock market, out of concern for what a single dose of this drug could do.)

History has long labeled women as unreliable and hysterical because of their hormones. Maybe now it's time to start saying, "He's just being hormonal."

The research has its limitations. On average, men in these studies were in their early 20s, and a surge in testosterone might not impair older men's reasoning in quite the same way. And of course this research doesn't prove that all men are bad decision makers because of their testosterone or that they're worse decision makers than women. Confidence can spur a person to action, to take risks. But we should all be more aware of when confidence tips into overconfidence, and testosterone supplements could encourage that. Ironically, these supplements might make someone feel bold enough to lead but probably reduce his ability to lead well.

The television ads promise youth and vigor, but they've left out the catch: Testosterone enhancement doesn't just make you feel like an invincible 18-year-old. It makes you think like one, too.


And now for something completely different.  This is exciting, and reminiscent of some of the work the Black Panthers did in the late '60s- early 70's, which you maybe have never heard about, but Joyce worked with them and knows about it.  (The positive side of these movements never seems to make the news).  It's also a bit scary, because of the guns.  Notice-- no one fired a shot.  Watch for saboteurs to get in there and try to start some violence if this movement gains any power.  
If the Democratic Party doesn't want to address the wealth inequality in this country, someone like this is going to have to do it.  So if you don't like it, it lays at the door of the Democratic Party if you want someone to blame.  
A sample paragraph:  "Redneck Revolt provides survival assistance tailored to the needs of their local community. This includes food programs, community gardens, clothing programs, and needle exchanges in addition to their armed self-defense programs."


In the infancy of the Trump presidency, a new community defense network is espousing anti-racist and anti-capitalist politics to build coalitions in cities, small towns, and rural areas across America.

Redneck Revolt recruits predominantly poor and working class white people away from reactionary politics. The organization advances an analysis of their class condition and white supremacy's role in upholding the wealth and privilege of a small, white elite.

Redneck Revolt inserts themselves into overwhelmingly white spaces—NASCAR races, gun shows, flea markets in rural communities, and country music concerts—to offer a meaningful alternative to the white supremacist groups who often also recruit in those spaces.

The organization's growing membership comes as media pundits, the Democratic Party, and the United States' relatively small socialist parties all grapple with how to address the plight of working class white Americans in the wake of Donald Trump's election.

"Economic anxiety," a term presented by the media to defend Trump's ascension, has become an internet meme for acts of racial terror. Hillbilly Elegy author JD Vance has been paraded around to defend and mythologize the travails of working class white Republican voters.

Establishment liberals debate whether these people, particularly in red states, are worth reaching out to at all. They find the ease with which they embrace nativism, social conservatism, and racism might threaten a liberal voting coalition that includes people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.

Yet the American historical context that animates the Republican Party-working class white alliance is often absent. The historical failure of neoliberalism to present sustainable pathways out of poverty or a meaningful safety net for American workers is scarcely contemplated.

It is unfair to let poor white people off the hook for their lack of solidarity with the rest of the working class. But it is only through engagement, recognition of the failures of both political parties, and organizing for a more radically unified working class politic that these issues can be overcome.

Historically small socialist organizations like Democratic Socialists of America have gained some traction promoting socialist, or more progressive liberal, politics in the wake of Senator Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential bid, but Redneck Revolt is not  prescriptive in regards to how to confront the inequities of the capitalist state.

"We don't have some grand plan for how we want to remake the world. We're tackling a specific problem, which is white supremacy, which we find to be built into capitalism," said Pittsburgh Redneck Revolt organizer Shaun who, along with Mitch, spoke with Shadowproof about their organizing with Redneck Revolt.

Shaun and Mitch of spoke to Shadowproof about their work with Redneck Revolt. Their last names are being withheld because other members of Redneck Revolt have faced doxxing and harassment by militia members and white supremacists. They don't want to put their families at greater risk.

"Our gripe with capitalism is it has utterly failed to make the vast majority of people free, because it was never really designed to," Shaun continued.

"It concentrates wealth in the hands of a small portion of the population, it concentrates power and access to resources in the hands of a small portion of the population, and it leaves the rest of us in a state of variable abjection. It doesn't work for anybody except the people who are exploiting the rest of us."

Despite their lack of a prescriptive political ideology, they do have a fairly broad set of principles posted on their website. They include a rejection of capitalism, and "wars of the rich," standing against "the nation-state and its forces which protect the bosses and the rich" and standing in "organized defense of our communities." They declare their belief in the "need for revolution."

Redneck Revolt's anti-racist, anti-capitalist message seems to be taking hold in communities across the United States. The organization had just 13 chapters in January but has nearly tripled its chapters nationally in the last 6 months. The group now has 34 different branches, 26 of which are in states that voted for Trump. Multiple chapters have over fifty members.

Shaun notes the Pittsburgh chapter is representative of a wide variety of political ideologies, including "anarchists, libertarians, socialists, and even a couple of hold-out Republicans."

Despite their diverse ideologies and backgrounds, Shaun explains that members are united by their rejection of white supremacy are drawn toward the group's emphasis on community defense and survival programs.

Phoenix John Brown Gun Club at a MAGA rally in Arizona. Source:

Phoenix John Brown Gun Club at a MAGA rally in Arizona. Source:


Redneck Revolt's community defense strategy extends to showing up to white power rallies, where hate groups broadcast their ideology into the public sphere.

On April 29, members of Redneck Revolt traveled to Pikeville, Kentucky to counter the Traditionalist Worker's Party (TWP) and the National Socialist Movement.

Nestled within Appalachia, Pikeville has a population of less than 7,000 and a median household income of $22,026. Ninety-five percent of people living there are white and 80 percent voted for Donald Trump.

"I've been to events countering the TWP before. They're a particularly virulent new pan-white power organization," Shaun said, reflecting on his trip to Pikeville. "They're doing a lot of work trying to consolidate different white power movements under one umbrella, which is obviously very dangerous."

"They've been very specifically, targeting Appalachia in a lot of their propaganda and organizing in the last couple of years, and as a native Appalachian, I take that very personally."

"It was really high stress," Shaun said, because the TWP and their allies were specific about "wanting to come armed and use Kentucky's stand your ground laws as a threat and a bludgeon," against those who would oppose them. "They definitely showed up in force and armed to the teeth," he said.

George Ciccariello-Maher is an Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University, where his work often focuses on left-wing political movements. He said the "result of debating and discussing with fascists and white supremacists is that you're legitimizing their ideas. And you're also misunderstanding how it is that those ideas function."

"The rational idea would be to come together as poor people to fight against the system and yet that systematically doesn't happen," Ciccariello-Maher said. "So when you realize white supremacy functions on an irrational level, that it is a system, a structured system of institutionalized irrationality, then you begin to realize that you can't argue your way out of it. Then you start to realize that the only thing you can do is to fight."

"We didn't argue your way into white supremacy and slavery, we're not going to argue our way out of white supremacy," Ciccariello-Maher said.

With that in mind, Redneck Revolt emphasizes the importance of teaching armed self-defense to its members and more marginalized communities.

"People need to be able to defend themselves. [We] live in a country in the world where people of color and LGBTQ people are routinely victimized and systematically victimized by the people who claim to be there for their defense," Shaun said.

"We provide free basic firearms training to pretty much everyone who needs it. We focus on trying to provide [self-defense training] when asked for [by] communities of color and LGBTQ folks." Their John Brown Solidarity Fund helps community defense initiatives "get off the ground and get training."

Despite facing heavily armed white supremacists, anti-fascists descended from the region to protest TWP and the National Socialist Movement. The people of Pikeville stood along side them in opposition to the hate.

These confrontations have not turned violent. There weren't brawls or property damage like has been seen in Berkeley and Portland. Violence did not break out at Pikeville, or at the proposed KKK rally in Asheboro, NC a week later, or at a MAGA rally in Phoenix, Arizona in March.

Some have speculated that Pikeville remained relatively peaceful because both sides were armed in a state with stand your ground laws, where a fight would inevitably lead to the discharging of firearms, a chilling deterrent.

The KKK never even bothered to show up in Asheboro, but the local Silver Valley Redneck Revolt managed to put together a counter-rally of approximately 100 people. Another community group organized similar numbers to march as well.

Shaun applauded the Pikeville community's resistance. "There was a complete refusal to let that fear stop them from showing up to do everything they could to keep it from being some sort of a walk of victory," Shaun said. "And that was intensely inspiring, because people were scared and people were afraid and they showed up anyway. And they showed up organized and in force."

Regardless of their political affiliation, Pikeville residents "came out and took a stand, a very vocal stand against white power movements trying to move into their territory and consolidate power. In fact some of the locals were some of the loudest, most strident anti-fascist voices there."

Survival Pending Revolution

"There's a narrative that a lot of the media misses about rural areas," said Mitch, a member of Redneck Revolt's Silver Valley chapter.

"The perception is that Appalachia and the deep south is just inundated with racist white supremacists. It's no secret that there's certainly a higher concentration in those areas," Mitch said, "but there's also swaths of disaffected people who want nothing to do with politics, who don't think that they can be represented by politicians, and are tired of being jerked around by both parties."

"They don't like liberals and they don't like conservatives. They want to take care of their needs and they're kind of at the behest of all these other parties that are just jerking them around and they're just tired of it. That's part of the demographic that we have a lot of messaging to."

Mitch described the lack of infrastructure, services, and meaningful political representation in his community in rural North Carolina as the setting where reactionary politics can easily take hold and where presidential elections generally represent a choice between two politicians with nothing meaningful to offer.

"Scattered throughout Silver Valley are some pretty low income places and very much rural ghettos in the form of trailer parks and just really low income housing that nobody bats an eye at, or tries to meet their needs, or organize with them. They're really forgotten communities," he said.

Redneck Revolt provides survival assistance tailored to the needs of their local community. This includes food programs, community gardens, clothing programs, and needle exchanges in addition to their armed self-defense programs.

Mitch has a garden on his property, on about ⅓ acre of land, where members try to connect with nearby low income and rural communities to provide free fresh food.

"We get people invested — time and energy wise — into working with us and finding ways to empower those communities to grow their own food, so that it doesn't have to come just through charity. It's not just us giving away food, it's the community itself finding ways to come together to feed their own," Mitch said.

In the future, Silver Valley members want to assist with distributing Meloxin and other medical supplies, and provide free clinics. "You've got to root yourself in the community first and see what their needs are and move to organize in that manner from there," he said.

Considering Redneck Revolt's vision, their embrace of the term 'redneck,' their belief in building solidarity with working and poor communities, their recruitment within rural white communities, and their embrace of late '60's-style survival programs, it is hard not to draw parallels to the original Rainbow Coalition, and specifically to the Young Patriots (YPO).

The Rainbow Coalition was an attempt—initially lead by Fred Hampton and the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s—to unify the Black Power movement led by the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Nationalist movement led by the Young Lords, and a white working class movement led by the YPO in Chicago.

Shaun confirms that members recognize parallels with the YPO internally.

"The YPO is a huge inspiration for us, specifically because it's one of the most visible instances of that sort of rupturing racial lines when folks from different demographics were able to step back and realize that their interests allied with one another not with a politician or a company," he said.

"There was a real tangible understanding that their liberation was bound up with one another's liberation. So we draw a lot of really explicit inspiration from the YPO and the work that they did with the Chicago Panthers and the Young Lords."

Professor Ciccariello-Maher believes that while the Young Lords should be an aspiration, organizers must be prepared for the challenges of coalitions.

"The danger of a Rainbow Coalition is that you can run into a left wing politics that, for example, asks Black Americans to stand-down with their complaints to embrace a broader coalition," he said.

Ciccariello-Maher cited the Communist Party USA's organizing as an example.

"I like to think of this in terms of an opposition that comes out of the old Communist Party strategy of what was called 'unite and fight.' The U.S. communist party, over a certain period, had a really incredible history of contributing to struggles against white supremacy in the U.S."

"It was really the main organization accomplishing these aims, but also had its limitations—in particular, when it retreated from those struggles, it argued essentially that workers should unite and fight, meaning a kind of lowest common denominator of what Black and white workers could agree on. The result of this was really to erase the centrality of white supremacy in the workplace and in US history."

In a modern context, Ciccariello-Maher suggests it's "Not just how can we get together, you know can Black, white, and brown agree to fight for 15 — the question is what helps us to overcome the very real divisions of the poor and working classes and sometimes that means fighting against white workers, over racial privileges."

"We need to see these things in motion, we need to understand the ways in which we could build a Rainbow Coalition, but one that understands the historic weight of anti-Blackness or one that understands the historical weight of Indigenous Genocide or of U.S. Imperialism in Latin America."

Ciccariello-Maher believes W.E.B.s Du Bois' Black Reconstruction In America provides valuable historical lessons, supporting Redneck Revolt's principles of standing against white supremacy, capitalism, and the wars of the rich. For Du Bois, the story of the white working class is a tragedy.

"It's the betrayal of a shared class condition," Cicariello-Maher said. "Du Bois is so struck by the fact that poor whites and slaves had so much in common and had so much potential for solidarity, and yet ultimately poor whites sided with the slaveowners and sided with what Du Bois called 'the petty wages of whiteness.' Psychological wages that make you feel better than someone else, but also material wages in the sense that you can work as a slave catcher and that's better than not having any job at all."

Shaun from Pittsburgh's chapter of Redneck Revolt discussed the conditions of these "psychological wages."

Shaun likes to tell potential members, "white supremacy is essentially a fight to be the best treated dog in the kennel."

"All poor and working class folks suffer at the hands of the rich. We all have trouble — bordering to the point of impossibility — making house rent, paying medical bills especially these days, covering food, making sure that our children and families are cared for and it doesn't have to be that way," he said.

"It's that way because a vastly small percentage of the population hordes access to resources and they're able to do this because they've managed to get one half of the working class to turn against the other half in exchange for basically preferential treatment."

"It's in everyone's best interests that we as quickly and aggressively as possible dismantle that system so that poor and working folks essentially have something resembling a fair shake at a decent life."

Saturday, June 24, 2017

ANS -- Smog in our brains

If you don't want to read the whole article -- it cites several studies, on humans, dogs, and mice, that show air pollution decreases cognition and increases the kind of plaques found in Alzheimer's. It's from a legitimate scientific organization: the APA.  There's a video.  And the EPA is tasked with measuring air pollution, which they usually do every five years (the one that Trump is destroying).  And it ends with a list of the ten smoggiest areas in the US.  
The date on this article is 2012, so they have known this for a while.  It says we can't do anything personally -- it's policy.  


    That yellow haze of smog hovering over the skyline isn't just a stain on the view. It may also leave a mark on your mind.

    Researchers have known since the 1970s that high levels of air pollution can harm both cardiovascular and respiratory health, increasing the risk of early death from heart and lung diseases. The effect of air pollution on cognition and mental well-being, however, has been less well understood. Now, evidence is mounting that dirty air is bad for your brain as well.

    Over the past decade, researchers have found that high levels of air pollution may damage children's cognitive abilities, increase adults' risk of cognitive decline and possibly even contribute to depression.

    "This should be taken seriously," says Paul Mohai, PhD, a professor in the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and the Environment who has studied the link between air pollution and academic performance in children. "I don't think the issue has gotten the visibility it deserves."

    Cognitive connections

    Most research on air pollution has focused on a type of pollutant known as fine particulate matter. These tiny particles — 1/30th the width of a human hair — are spewed by power plants, factories, cars and trucks. Due to its known cardiovascular effects, particulate matter is one of six principal pollutants for which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established air quality standards.

    It now seems likely that the harmful effects of particulate matter go beyond vascular damage. Jennifer Weuve, MPH, ScD, an assistant professor of internal medicine at Rush Medical College, found that older women who had been exposed to high levels of the pollutant experienced greater cognitive decline compared with other women their age (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2012). Weuve's team gathered data from the Nurses' Health Study Cognitive Cohort, a population that included more than 19,000 women across the United States, age 70 to 81. Using the women's address history, Weuve and her colleagues estimated their exposure to particulate matter over the previous seven to 14 years. The researchers found that long-term exposure to high levels of the pollution significantly worsened the women's cognitive decline, as measured by tests of cognitive skill.

    Weuve and her colleagues investigated exposure to both fine particulate matter (the smallest particles, less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter) and coarse particulate matter (larger particles ranging from 2.5 to 10 micrometers in size).

    "The conventional wisdom is that coarse particles aren't as important as fine particles" when it comes to human health, Weuve says. Previous studies in animals and human cadavers had shown that the smaller particles can more easily penetrate the body's defenses. "They can cross from the lung to the blood and, in some cases, travel up the axon of the olfactory nerve into the brain," she says. But Weuve's study held a surprise. She found that exposure to both fine and coarse particulate was associated with cognitive decline.

    Weuve's results square with those of a similar study by Melinda Power, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology and environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health. Power and her colleagues studied the link between black carbon — a type of particulate matter associated with diesel exhaust, a source of fine particles — and cognition in 680 older men in Boston (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2011). "Black carbon is essentially soot," Power says.

    Power's team used black carbon exposure as a proxy for measuring overall traffic-related pollution. They estimated each man's black carbon exposure by cross-referencing their addresses with an established model that provides daily estimates of black carbon concentrations throughout the Boston area. Much like Weuve's results in older women, Power and colleagues found that men exposed to high levels of black carbon had reduced cognitive performance, equivalent to aging by about two years, as compared with men who'd had less black carbon exposure.

    But while black carbon is a convenient marker of air pollution, it's too soon to say that it's what's causing the cognitive changes, Power says. "The problem is there are a lot of other things associated with traffic — noise, gases — so we can't say from this study that it's the particulate part of the air pollution that matters."

    Still, the cumulative results of these studies suggest that air pollution deserves closer scrutiny as a risk factor for cognitive impairment and perhaps dementia.

    "Many dementias are often preceded by a long period of cognitive decline. But we don't know very much about how to prevent or delay dementia," Weuve says. If it turns out that air pollution does contribute to cognitive decline and the onset of dementia, the finding could offer a tantalizing new way to think about preventing disease. "Air pollution is something that we can intervene on as a society at large, through technology, regulation and policy," she says.

    Young minds

    Research is also finding air-pollution-related harms to children's cognition. Shakira Franco Suglia, ScD, an assistant professor at Boston University's School of Public Health, and colleagues followed more than 200 Boston children from birth to an average age of 10. They found that kids exposed to greater levels of black carbon scored worse on tests of memory and verbal and nonverbal IQ (American Journal of Epidemiology, 2008).

    More recently, Frederica Perera, DrPH, at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and colleagues followed children in New York City from before birth to age 6 or 7. They discovered that children who had been exposed to higher levels of urban air pollutants known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons while in utero were more likely to experience attention problems and symptoms of anxiety and depression (Environmental Health Perspectives, 2012). These widespread chemicals are a byproduct of burning fossil fuels.

    Meanwhile Mohai, at the University of Michigan, found that Michigan public schools located in areas with the highest industrial pollution levels had the lowest attendance rates and the greatest percentage of students who failed to meet state testing standards, even after controlling for socioeconomic differences and other confounding factors (Health Affairs, 2011). What's worse, the researchers analyzed the distribution of the state's public schools and found that nearly two-thirds were located in the more-polluted areas of their districts. Only about half of states have environmental quality policies for schools, Mohai says, "and those that do may not go far enough. More attention needs to be given to this issue."

    Although Michigan and Massachusetts may experience areas of poor air quality, their pollution problems pale in comparison to those of Mexico City, for example. In a series of studies, Lilian Calder├│n-Garcidue├▒as, MD, PhD, a neuropathologist at the University of Montana and the National Institute of Pediatrics in Mexico City, has investigated the neurological effects of the city's infamous smog.

    In early investigations, Calder├│n-Garcidue├▒as dissected the brains of dogs that had been exposed to air pollution of Mexico City and compared them with the brains of dogs from a less-polluted city. She found the Mexico City dogs' brains showed increased inflammation and pathology including amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles, clumps of proteins that serve as a primary marker for Alzheimer's disease in humans (Toxicologic Pathology, 2003).

    In follow-up research, Calderón-Garcidueñas turned her attention to Mexico's children. In one study, she examined 55 kids from Mexico City and 18 from the less-polluted city of Polotitlán. Magnetic resonance imagining scans revealed that the children exposed to urban pollution were significantly more likely to have brain inflammation and damaged tissue in the prefrontal cortex. Neuroinflammation, Calderón-Garcidueñas explains, disrupts the blood-brain barrier and is a key factor in many central nervous system disorders, including Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease. Perhaps more troubling, though, the differences between the two groups of children weren't just anatomical. Compared with kids from cleaner Polotitlán, the Mexico City children scored lower on tests of memory, cognition and intelligence (Brain and Cognition, 2008).

    Brain changes

    It's becoming clearer that air pollution affects the brain, but plenty of questions remain. Randy Nelson, PhD, a professor of neuroscience at the Ohio State University, is using mouse studies to find some answers. With his doctoral student Laura Fonken and colleagues, he exposed mice to high levels of fine particulate air pollution five times a week, eight hours a day, to mimic the exposure a human commuter might receive if he or she lived in the suburbs and worked in a smoggy city (Molecular Psychiatry, 2011). After 10 months, they found that the mice that had been exposed to polluted air took longer to learn a maze task and made more mistakes than mice that had not breathed in the pollution.

    Nelson also found that the pollutant-exposed mice showed signs of the rodent equivalent of depression. Mice said to express depressive-like symptoms give up swimming more quickly in a forced swim test and stop sipping sugar water that they normally find attractive. Both behaviors can be reversed with antidepressants. Nelson found that mice exposed to the polluted air scored higher on tests of depressive-like responses.

    To find out more about the underlying cause of those behavioral changes, Nelson compared the brains of mice that had been exposed to dirty air with brains of mice that hadn't. He found a number of striking differences. For starters, mice exposed to particulate matter had increased levels of cytokines in the brain. (Cytokines are cell-signaling molecules that regulate the body's inflammatory response.) That wasn't entirely surprising, since previous studies investigating the cardiovascular effects of air pollution on mice had found widespread bodily inflammation in mice exposed to the pollution.

    More surprisingly, Nelson also discovered physical changes to the nerve cells in the mouse hippocampus, a region known to play a role in spatial memory. Exposed mice had fewer spines on the tips of the neurons in this brain region. "Those [spines] form the connections to other cells," Nelson says. "So you have less dendritic complexity, and that's usually correlated with a poorer memory."

    The changes are alarming and surprising, he says. "I never thought we'd actually see changes in brain structure."

    Nelson's mice experienced quite high levels of pollution, on par with those seen in places such as Mexico City and Beijing, which rank higher on the pollution scale than U.S. cities. It's not yet clear whether the same changes would occur in mice exposed to pollution levels more typical of American cities. Another limitation, he notes, is that the animals in his study were genetically identical. Nelson says he'd like to see similar studies of wild-type mice to help tease out whether genetic differences might make some people more or less vulnerable to the effects of pollution. "I would suspect there are people who are wildly susceptible to this and people who are less so, or not at all," he says.

    Few studies have investigated connections between depression and air pollution, but Nelson's wasn't the first. A study by Portuguese researchers explored the relationship between psychological health and living in industrial areas. They found that people who lived in areas associated with greater levels of air pollution scored higher on tests of anxiety and depression (Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2011).

    Back in Ohio, Nelson plans to study how much — or how little — pollution is necessary to cause changes in the brain and behavior. He's also beginning to look at the effects of air pollution on pregnant mice and their offspring. Though more research is needed to fully understand how dirty air impairs the brain, he says, the picture that's emerging suggests reason for concern.

    In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency reviews the scientific basis for particulate matter standards every five years or so, and completed its last review in 2009.

    To date, the EPA hasn't factored psychological research into their standards assessments, but that could change, according to a statement the EPA provided to the Monitor. "Additional research is necessary to assess the impact of ambient air pollutants on central nervous system function, such as cognitive processes, especially during critical windows of brain development. To this end, as the number of … studies continue to increase and add to the weight of overall evidence, future National Ambient Air Quality Standards assessments will again assess and address the adequacy of existing standards."

    In the meantime, says Weuve, there's not much people can do to protect themselves, short of wearing special masks, installing special filtration systems in their homes and offices or moving to cities with less airborne pollution. "Ultimately, we're at the mercy of policy," she says.

    The good news, Nelson says, is that the mental and cognitive effects of air pollution are finally beginning to receive attention from the mental health research community. "We sort of forget about these environmental insults," says Nelson. "Maybe we shouldn't."

    Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.

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    How does air pollution affect our brains? It depends on the size of the particle we inhale, says Jennifer Weuve, MPH, ScD, of Rush Medical College. Fine particulate matter, which includes smoke, car exhaust and pollen, can interact directly with the brain. Coarse particulate matter, however, is more of a mystery that researchers are only now beginning to study.

    U.S. cities with the worst air pollution by year-round particle pollution, 2012

    1. Bakersfield-Delano, Calif. 
    2. Hanford-Corcoran, Calif. 
    3. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Riverside, Calif. 
    4. Visalia-Porterville, Calif. 
    5. Fresno-Madera, Calif. 
    6. Pittsburgh-New Castle, Pa. 
    7. Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, Ariz. 
    8. Cincinnati-Middletown-Wilmington, Ohio-Ky.-Ind. 
    9. Louisville-Jefferson County-Elizabethtown-Scottsburg, Ky.-Ind. 
    10. (tie) Philadelphia-Camden-Vineland, Pa.-N.J.-Del.-Md. St. Louis-St. Charles-Farmington, Mo.-Ill.

    Worst air pollution Source: American Lung Association 2012 State of the Air report.