Mother’s exposure to air particles before birth can harm infant health

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Newly published research has found links between mothers who inhale particulate matter during pregnancy and infants who experience respiratory disease.

Infants who had been prenatally exposed to ultrafine particles (UFPs), which are tiny bits of air pollution, do not mount a robust immune response to house dust mites, according to research published by a team led by an environmental science researcher at the Texas A&M School of Public Health.

Natalie Johnson, assistant professor at the School of Public Health and co-director of the Program on Asthma Research and Education, published the research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Johnson, who received the $2 million Outstanding New Environmental Scientist award from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences last year, researches maternal air pollution exposure in correlation to infant and childhood asthma and respiratory tract infections. Some research done by a team in the Netherlands has suggested that having these kinds of infections at a young age can also lead to an increased risk of asthma later in life.

UFPs can cause cellular stress because it can travel from the lungs into the bloodstream and from there throughout the body. This may be particularly important during pregnancy because the developing fetus can be affected.

In this preliminary study, Johnson and her fellow researchers used a preclinical model to test whether mothers’ exposure to a mixture of UFPs present in air pollution affected their infants’ ability to mount an immune response. Kristal Rychlik, Johnson’s former doctoral student, helped conduct the study along with Jeremiah Secrest, a current doctoral student working with Renyi Zhang, professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

To test this, Johnson and her team had some pregnant animal models breathe only filtered air and others breathe air with UFPs. When the infants were born, they were all regularly exposed to house dust mites, a common allergen in humans. These two groups showed marked differences.

“We found that offspring that were prenatally exposed to the particles, when challenged with house dust mites, did not mount a response as high as those not exposed,” Johnson said. “We think that we uncovered a window of immune suppression, and they may be more susceptible to respiratory viruses in the future.”

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