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Your Environment. Your Health.

Neurodegenerative Diseases

Program Description

Researcher reviewing brain scans

Neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people worldwide. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are the most common neurodegenerative diseases. As of a 2021 report, the Alzheimer's Disease Association estimates that the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease could be as many as 6.2 million. An estimated 1.2 million people in the United States could be living with Parkinson’s disease by 2030.

Neurodegenerative diseases occur when nerve cells in the brain or peripheral nervous system lose function over time and ultimately die. Although treatments may help relieve some of the physical or mental symptoms associated with neurodegenerative diseases, there is currently no way to slow disease progression and no known cures.

The risk of being affected by a neurodegenerative disease increases dramatically with age. More Americans living longer means more people may be affected by neurodegenerative diseases in coming decades. This situation creates a critical need to improve our understanding of what causes neurodegenerative diseases and develop new approaches for treatment and prevention.

Scientists recognize that the combination of a person’s genes and environment contributes to their risk of developing a neurodegenerative disease. That is, a person might have a gene that makes them more susceptible to a certain neurodegenerative disease. But whether, when, and how severely the person is affected depends on environmental exposures throughout life.

Key research challenges are identifying and measuring exposures that may have occurred before an individual is diagnosed and disentangling the effects of these exposures.

What Is NIEHS Doing?

NIEHS funds research projects that look at how exposure to pesticides, pollution, and other contaminants, alone and in combination with specific genes, affects neurodegeneration.

NIEHS also provides funding for career development programs to support researchers and cultivate the next generation of leaders in the field.

Grant recipients study the following diseases:

  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
  • Motor neuron disease

Grant recipients study the following types of environmental factors:

  • Pesticides, fungicides, and insecticides
  • Metals (e.g., arsenic, lead, manganese)
  • Chemicals used in industry or consumer products (e.g., polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
  • Air pollution
  • Biological factors (e.g., endotoxins produced by bacteria)
  • Dietary and lifestyle factors (e.g., caffeine, tobacco smoke, dietary antioxidants)

Learn more about environmental factors that may be associated with Parkinson’s Disease in the Health and Education section.

Program Leads

Jonathan Hollander
Jonathan A. Hollander, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
Tel 984-287-3269
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-15
Durham, N.C. 27709
Cindy Lawler
Cindy Lawler, Ph.D.
Chief, Genes, Environment, and Health Branch
Tel 984-287-3280
P.O. Box 12233
Mail Drop K3-15
Durham, N.C. 27709
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