New research shows ‘alarming’ impact of wildfire smoke on the brain

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New research shows breathing in wildfire smoke can damage our brains.

University of New Mexico researchers said they have found a troubling link, and it may reveal serious consequences for people in New Mexico.

“We’ve been studying how wildfire smoke can impact how the brain works,” UNM researcher Dr. Matthew Campen said.

Campen is a co-director of the UNM Clinical and Translational Science Center.

He said to his knowledge, this is the first research that shows this strong link between wildfire smoke and inflammation in the brain.

“We see not only a clear signal that the brain has this inflammatory outcome, but that it lasts for a long time,” Campen said.

The long duration could mean two to four weeks after a person is no longer breathing in smoke – a surprising conclusion which Campen said is “alarming.”

It would mean a greater impact on the brain, on many different functions – short and long term, including learning, memory, and cognitive decline.

“Our mood, how positive or negative our feelings are, our levels of anxiety, and then, of course, we worry about long-term disease like dementia or Alzheimer’s.”

Campen said these are some of the same symptoms as a brain injury.

In small towns, like Las Vegas, New Mexico, which dealt with smoke for weeks from the destructive Calf Canyon Hermits Peak Fire two years ago, tens of thousands people were exposed to these kinds of levels of smoke.

“I think it’s a warning shot. It really highlights an area that has been not paid attention to previously and absolutely could be worrisome for a large portion of the country,” Campen said.

Campen said millions of Americans each year are exposed to this amount of smoke.

UNM researchers used wood smoke from piñon, the New Mexico state tree. They exposed mice for two weeks, mimicking how people would be exposed.

They want to learn more about those risks of dementia, if smoke could be causing people’s brains to actually age, and they hope other researchers can build off these findings to learn who’s most at risk, and what people can do about it. For example, add something to their diets to help their bodies cope.