Newswise — (Mount Laurel, NJ, October 17, 2022) — With timely focus, neurologists and neuroscientists are paying serious attention to the role of environmental exposures — air pollution, pesticides, microplastics, and more — in diseases like dementias and developmental disorders. The Presidential Symposium at the American Neurological Association’s 2022 Annual Meeting (ANA2022) in Chicago will shine a spotlight on this rapidly developing field. The symposium, “Neurologic Dark Matter: Exploring the Exposome that Drives Neurological Disorders,” takes place Saturday, October 23, 1:15–3:15 p.m. CDT and is co-moderated by the heads of the ANA, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
Research on diseases like asthma and cancer has long shown inextricable environmental links, but with the exception of lead exposure, brain science has paid only peripheral attention to the role of our many chemical exposures in disease. “We’ve really overlooked some of the contaminants in our environment,” says Symposium Chair Frances E. Jensen, MD, FANA, president of the American Neurological Association and chair of the Department of Neurology at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “This is a wake-up call. The Symposium will discuss the astronomical rise in Parkinson’s disease, for example, that can’t fully be explained by genetics or the aging population. Environmental exposures are lurking in the background, and they’re rising.”
“We are hitting the ceiling of what can be explained by genetics,” says Walter J. Koroshetz, MD, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and co-moderator of the ANA symposium. “What’s the rest of it? We call it the exposome — and the ways in which a panoply of exposures over the lifetime interact with our genes to cause neurologic diseases.”
Exposomics, the study of human chemical exposures and their effects, has started to take off among neurologists and neuroscientists in the past few years, spurred in part by a session convened in 2020 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The workshop noted that there are more than 80,000 toxic chemicals humans may encounter in the environment — so many that it is nearly impossible to determine their individual effects on a person, let alone how they may interact. This may especially be an issue for economically marginalized groups who are exposed to more toxicants through unsafe housing, jobs involving dangerous chemicals without proper precautions, urban and industrial pollution, and more. But chemical exposures at different levels are common to most people, and our genetic makeup may determine how susceptible we are to effects that lead to neurologic disease.
“Gene-environment effects are critically important,” says Rick Woychik, PhD, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the symposium’s other co-moderator. “It’s not just about pesticides. PFAS chemicals are ubiquitous in the environment, as are nanoplastics. And there are trillions of dollars’ worth of demand for nanomaterials, but it’s sobering how little we know about their toxicology.”
Research presentations at the ANA2022 Presidential Symposium will include:
- Deborah A. Cory-Slechta, PhD, University of Rochester: “Chemical Exposures: The Ignored Environmental Risk Factor(s) for Neurodegenerative Diseases and Neurodevelopmental Disorders.”
- Devon Payne-Sturges, DrPh, University of Maryland: “Racial Disparities in Exposures to Environmental Contaminants.”
- Eva Feldman, MD, PhD, University of Michigan: “Leveraging the Exposome for ALS Prevention.”
- Timothy Greenamyre, MD, PhD, FANA, University of Pittsburgh: “Convergent Mechanisms of Environmental Toxicant-Induced Parkinson’s Disease.”
- Ray Dorsey, MD, FANA, University of Rochester: “Is the Rise in Incidence of Parkinson’s Largely Human-Made?”
A panel discussion at the end of the symposium will discuss key highlights as well as how physicians and scientists might respond to environmental exposure threats.
“Physicians have to ask their patients, ‘Where do you work?’” says Woychik. “If you’re a farmer, for example, what is it that you’re spraying on your crops?” For certain conditions where a strong role is emerging for environmental exposures — such as intellectual disability acquired early in life, or the neurodegenerative diseases ALS, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s—knowing a person’s genetic risk combined with their chemical risks may help them take better precautions. “Part of the challenge may be to develop tools — for example, wearable devices to monitor exposures in farmers as they spray their fields, similar to what we already have for radiation,” Woychik says. And if a person presents with the disease, combined genetic and exposomic information may result in different treatment paths.
On the other hand, notes Jensen, “A lot of this is not about what a doctor can do for their patient anymore. We also need to rely on the non-medical parts of the community to treat neurological disease. It requires a lot of advocacy, educating the public, making some big changes in our society.”
To speak with the Symposium chair, moderators, or presenters, please contact Luise Moskowitz at [email protected] or 267-307-6617.
Another breaking research presentation at an ANA2022 poster session will discuss new research further linking ozone pollution (common in urban areas) to increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Contact Luise Moskowitz for more information or to speak to the researchers.
The 147th ANA Annual Meeting will be held October 22–25, 2022 at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago, IL. The organization’s first in-person annual meeting since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, ANA2022 will bring together close to 1,000 top academic neurologists and neuroscientists, along with students and trainees, from across the United States and internationally.
The meeting will showcase emerging science across neurology, including a Presidential Symposium on the effect of environmental contamination on the brain (“Neurologic Dark Matter: Exploring the Exposome that Drives Neurological Disorders”) and plenary sessions including Novel Perspectives on Neurodegeneration, Brain Organoid Models of Neurological Disorders, Emerging Role of Somatic Mutations in Neurology, Advancing Neurologic Equity, and Peripheral Contributions to Neurologic Disorders.
ANA2022 will feature a media roundtable, on Tuesday, October 25 from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. Central Time, at which presenters of the principal symposia will summarize session highlights, discuss the relevance of the work, and answer questions. Contact Luise Moskowitz for call-in information.
To register and obtain press credentials, please click here.
About the American Neurological Association (ANA)
From advances in stroke and dementia to movement disorders and epilepsy, the American Neurological Association has been at the vanguard of research since 1875 as the premier professional society of academic neurologists and neuroscientists devoted to understanding and treating diseases of the nervous system. Its monthly Annals of Neurology is among the world’s most prestigious medical journals, and the ANA’s Annals of Clinical and Translational Neurology is an online-only, open access journal providing rapid dissemination of high-quality, peer-reviewed research related to all areas of neurology. The acclaimed ANA Annual Meeting draws faculty and trainees from the top academic departments across the U.S. and abroad for groundbreaking research, networking, and career development. For more information, visit www.myana.org or @TheNewANA1.