Could Environmental Pollutants Play a Role in Alzheimer’s Disease?

Xin Wang, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a Research Investigator in the department of epidemiology at the U-M School of Public Health. He is also a mentee in our new class of junior investigators (see page 4 for the full announcement). His research focuses on developing and applying data-driven approaches to evaluate a wide variety of environmental factors in aging-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Because the burden of Alzheimer’s disease is continually growing, identifying modifiable risk factors is key to reducing some of this burden. Several modifiable risk factors in midlife, including cardiometabolic disorders (e.g. type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and obesity), hearing loss, traumatic brain injury, and alcohol abuse, have been associated with an elevated risk of dementia later in life. Environmental pollutants are also potentially modifiable factors, but many have been understudied.
Dr. Wang’s research focuses on common pollutants, including metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, selenium, and manganese. Most studies in this area focus on children, and the few studies that investigate adults have yielded inconsistent results. Even more critical, no studies have evaluated the association between exposures to metals and the impact over time on thinking abilities. Because of this lack of research, we can’t determine a causal relationship between metal exposure and cognition, and, potentially down the road, Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (ADRD).

Dr. Wang investigates this relationship. Not only is he the first to explore the role of metals in cognitive decline over the life span, he also will relate his findings to blood-based biomarkers in Alzheimer’s disease in mid-to-late life. While ADRD is a late-life disease, growing evidence suggest that it begins to build pathologically in midlife. Dr. Wang hopes to identify whether reducing midlife exposure to these metals could be an effective way to prevent later-life ADRD. Long-term, he seeks to determine the feasibility of designing a large-scale epidemiologic study that explores the associations between metal exposures and cognitive decline and identifying ADRD biomarkers of cognitive decline linked to metal exposures from mid-late life.

Dr. Wang’s project is co-funded in partnership between the Michigan Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center and the Michigan Center for Life State Environmental Exposure and Disease.