Lead, mercury, arsenic, carbon monoxide, and organic solvents like benzene and toluene are toxic to the brain. Luckily, chemical exposure to large doses of toxins is largely a thing of the past, at least in the United States. Nonetheless, the problem does persist, since the control of auto emissions and industrial pollutants is far from perfect. Exposure to low levels of these toxins can cause mild cognitive deficits.
In children, nerve cells are still reproducing and growing, and heavy metals like lead wreak havoc on DNA and the process of cell reproduction. In adults, the nerve cells have already been fully formed, so the potential for brain damage and memory loss is much lower, though it still exists. In our Memory Disorders Center, we have seen a handful of middle-aged patients with possible heavy metal or organic solvent (benzene, toluene) toxicity, usually from a work-related source. In such cases, the facts can become a little murky if workmen's compensation claims are involved.
Auto exhausts emit carbon monoxide gas, which atmospheric oxygen quickly converts to the less dangerous, though still unhealthy, carbon dioxide gas. People who try to commit suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning shut the garage doors to prevent access to fresh oxygen, connect the exhaust pipe to the interior of the car, and turn on the ignition. When this happens, the carbon monoxide from the exhaust competes with and displaces oxygen from hemoglobin in the body's bloodstream, depriving vital tissues of life-giving oxygen. Therefore, the brain areas damaged by carbon monoxide poisoning are those that need oxygen the most: the basal ganglia that control motor movements and hippocampal nerve cells. Naturally, motor movement abnormalities and memory loss are common complications. If the person survives, the death of nerve cells leads to motor and cognitive deficits that neither improve nor deteriorate over time.
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