UBC Faculty Research and Publications

Nanoplastics and Neurodegeneration in ALS Eisen, Andrew, 1936-; Pioro, Erik P., 1955-; Goutman, Stephen A.; Kiernan, Matthew C.


Plastic production, which exceeds one million tons per year, is of global concern. The constituent low-density polymers enable spread over large distances and micro/nano particles (MNPLs) induce organ toxicity via digestion, inhalation, and skin contact. Particles have been documented in all human tissues including breast milk. MNPLs, especially weathered particles, can breach the blood–brain barrier, inducing neurotoxicity. This has been documented in non-human species, and in human-induced pluripotent stem cell lines. Within the brain, MNPLs initiate an inflammatory response with pro-inflammatory cytokine production, oxidative stress with generation of reactive oxygen species, and mitochondrial dysfunction. Glutamate and GABA neurotransmitter dysfunction also ensues with alteration of excitatory/inhibitory balance in favor of reduced inhibition and resultant neuro-excitation. Inflammation and cortical hyperexcitability are key abnormalities involved in the pathogenic cascade of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and are intricately related to the mislocalization and aggregation of TDP-43, a hallmark of ALS. Water and many foods contain MNPLs and in humans, ingestion is the main form of exposure. Digestion of plastics within the gut can alter their properties, rendering them more toxic, and they cause gut microbiome dysbiosis and a dysfunctional gut–brain axis. This is recognized as a trigger and/or aggravating factor for ALS. ALS is associated with a long (years or decades) preclinical period and neonates and infants are exposed to MNPLs through breast milk, milk substitutes, and toys. This endangers a time of intense neurogenesis and establishment of neuronal circuitry, setting the stage for development of neurodegeneration in later life. MNPL neurotoxicity should be considered as a yet unrecognized risk factor for ALS and related diseases.

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