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Smoke isn’t just changing the sky color. It’s also impacting your brain.

The slopes of Redondo Peak in New Mexico enshrouded with smoke
Mouser Williams
/
Flickr
The slopes of Redondo Peak in New Mexico enshrouded with smoke on June 5, 2013.

The Mountain West has seen a record increase in wildfires over the past couple years, and their smoke drifted across the region. Now, new research is showing that exposure to wildfire smoke can have negative effects on the brain.

Researchers at the University of New Mexico exposed adult mice to wood smoke every other day for two weeks. They thought that pattern would mimic periodic exposure to wildfire smoke, as the winds constantly change directions. Then, they assessed how the brains of the mice responded.

They found that the mice experienced inflammation in the brain, and almost a month later, things were not totally reset. The study was published in late August in the Journal of Neuroinflammation.

The woodsmoke mouse exposure chamber sits in the lab at the University of New Mexico. New research is showing that exposure to wildfire smoke can have negative effects on the brain.
Matthew Campen
/
University of New Mexico
The woodsmoke mouse exposure chamber sits in the lab at the University of New Mexico. New research is showing that exposure to wildfire smoke can have negative effects on the brain.

That inflammation particularly hit the hippocampus, a critical area for learning something new or creating a memory. Researchers say this exposure to smoke could impact rates of Alzheimer’s or dementia in the future.

The brain is “trying to protect itself, but it does distract those cells…from doing their normal job of allowing you to think and remember and learn,” said Matthew Campen, a study author and a professor in the university’s College of Pharmacy.

This comes as Climate Central reports that through August 31 of this year, there has been a 66% increase in fine particle pollution in comparison to the previous record year of 2021. Additionally, the Stanford Environmental Change and Human Outcomes Lab has found that the average U.S. resident has experienced more smoke pollution in the first half of this year than any other year since 2006.

Campen said the breadth of the problem poses a big risk to people.

“What's alarming to me is we're talking now about the entire country being exposed. So you're talking about 400 million people,” Campen said. “That's a lot…It's not like just users or people who don't wash their hands are at risk. This is everybody.”

Campen has conducted more research on the effects of wildfire smoke. While it still has to be peer-reviewed, he found that the smoke can also significantly decrease levels of serotonin in older mice. That lasted for 10 weeks – an effect that could cause depression and lack of focus at work in people, he said.

He tried giving the mice a dietary supplement to see if that would change their serotonin levels, and it worked at normalizing the emotional response.

“Environmental stressors put a burden on the body,” he said. “But if you're healthy, if you take care of yourself, the diet can give you what you need to take care of it.”

In addition to a healthy diet and supplements that boost brain power, he recommends that people stay indoors and wear masks to avoid the inflammatory effects of wildfire smoke. He is also wary of those in southern Mountain West states who use evaporative cooling systems, as they are not good at keeping out smoke.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

I'm the General Assignment Reporter and Back-Up Host for KUNC, here to keep you up-to-date on news in Northern Colorado — whether I'm out in the field or sitting in the host chair. From city climate policies, to businesses closing, to the creativity of Indigenous people, I'll research what is happening in your backyard and share those stories with you as you go about your day.

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