Neurodegenerative diseases affect millions of people worldwide. Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease are the most common types, with more than five million Americans living with Alzheimer’s disease, and at least 500,000 Americans living with Parkinson's disease, although some estimates are much higher.
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. Population-wide health improvements have increased lifespan which, along with a larger generation of aging Americans, means more people may be affected by neurodegenerative diseases in coming decades. This creates a critical need to improve our understanding of what causes neurodegenerative diseases and develop new approaches for treatment and prevention.
Scientists now 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 what environmental factors he or she is exposed to during life. Key research challenges are identifying and measuring exposures that may have occurred many years before an individual is diagnosed and disentangling the effects of these exposures.
What NIEHS is Doing
NIEHS currently 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 talented researchers and cultivate the next generation of leaders in the field.
Grant recipients in this area study the following diseases:
- Parkinson's disease
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Huntington’s disease
- Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)
- Motor neuron disease
Grant recipients in this area 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) and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs))
- Air pollution
- Biological factors (e.g., endotoxins produced by bacteria)
- Dietary and lifestyle factors (e.g., caffeine, tobacco smoke, dietary antioxidants) in combination with environmental factor(s) listed above
Jonathan A. Hollander, Ph.D.
Health Scientist Administrator
P.O. Box 12233Mail Drop K3-15Durham, N.C. 27709