How Climate Change Impacts Neuroscience


The twelfth prompt of our science advent is asking us to take a look at a perhaps surprising factor that might impact neuroscience, namely climate change.

There is mounting evidence that climate change, and more specifically the extreme temperatures that define it, have a profound impact on the nervous system, both in healthy and pathological conditions. For one, rising temperatures have been consistently associated with less sleep, which in turn is associated with poorer health outcomes. In terms of effects on people who are suffering from neurological conditions, one prominent example of symptom worsening is that of multiple sclerosis. We already know that higher temperatures exacerbate the suffering of these patients, and the temperature extremes of climate change will only compound that effect. Here, as well, there will be further downstream implications, such as more visits to the hospital and increased strain on an already struggling system. Other events, such as stroke, also become more frequent with rising temperatures and will again add to these issues.

On the other hand, as heat and other extreme weather events lead to changes in the distribution of infectious agents, we will see more neuroinfectious pathogens, such as those causing viral encephalitis, spread significantly beyond their original areas. Currently, the estimated incidence for viral encephalitis is 3.5 – 7.5 per 100,000 people and most of those treated recover without long-term effects. The few others will suffer symptoms ranging from difficulty of concentration to seizures, paralysis, and intellectual disability. As viral agents become more widespread and the incidence of the disease increases, the absolute number of people in the latter category will go up as well, increasing both individual suffering and societal support struggles.

And of course, extreme weather events (such as hurricanes and flooding), contribute to worsening mental health outcomes. These are also exacerbated by one of the driving factors of climate change, namely pollution (we wrote about that here). What’s more, pollution has also been linked to a variety of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease, as well as impaired neurodevelopment.

All of these effects are not direct effects on the field of neuroscience as a whole, but on specific aspects of brain functioning and health. Nevertheless, climate change is basically pressing the gas pedal on issues that neuroscience is already struggling to solve. As solving mental health and neurodegenerative disorders becomes an ever more pressing issue, it could be that we will see more and more money being thrown into neuroscience research. But a still open question is whether the field will be able to provide answers in due time.

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Further reading

Cruz, J., White, P. C., Bell, A., & Coventry, P. A. (2020). Effect of extreme weather events on mental health: a narrative synthesis and meta-analysis for the UK. International journal of environmental research and public health17(22), 8581.

Elser, H., Parks, R. M., Moghavem, N., Kiang, M. V., Bozinov, N., Henderson, V. W., … & Casey, J. A. (2021). Anomalously warm weather and acute care visits in patients with multiple sclerosis: A retrospective study of privately insured individuals in the US. PLoS Medicine18(4), e1003580.

Levy, R. J. (2015). Carbon monoxide pollution and neurodevelopment: a public health concern. Neurotoxicology and teratology49, 31-40.

Rifkin, D. I., Long, M. W., & Perry, M. J. (2018). Climate change and sleep: A systematic review of the literature and conceptual framework. Sleep medicine reviews42, 3-9.

Wang, J., Ma, T., Ma, D., Li, H., Hua, L., He, Q., & Deng, X. (2021). The impact of air pollution on neurodegenerative diseases. Therapeutic Drug Monitoring43(1), 69-78.

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