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What impact will climate change have on the brain?

  • Scott LaMar

Aired; April 22nd, 2024.


April 22nd is Earth Day – 54 years since the first Earth Day that is credited with starting the environmentally movement and led to changes to protect the environment.

However, Earth Day today is different. Climate change will be the focus of most of the Earth Day activities around the world. There will be talk about the changes in temperature, water levels, extreme weather and the dangers they pose physically to the planet. But how will climate change affect our brains and behaviors?

A new book – The Weight of Nature: How a Changing Climate Changes Our Brains describes a profound and what could be depicted as a frightening future of neurological diseases, developmental disorders and increased anger and maybe even violence.

The book was written by Clayton Page Aldern, a neuroscientist turned journalist , who was with us on The Spark Monday.

Aldern explained how a changing claimate could impact our brains,” There are cellular effects, those that are taking place at the level of the individual neuron, the individual brain cell. There are those that manifest at the level of the whole organism or at the individual, what’s happening to us and our cognition and our behavior. And and then there are the effects that manifest again neurologically, but in the manner in which we treat one another right, in the interactions between people, the effects that manifest at the level of culture and socializing and and so, just to zoom the lens in a teeny bit very quickly at that cellular level, we’re really talking about brain disease. We’re talking about neurodegeneration and zoological diseases. This is the kind of stuff like bats, ticks, mosquitoes, all of these disease vectors that are responsible for brain diseases like yellow fever and cerebral malaria — they’re increasing their habitable ranges as a function of climate change. So even if we don’t do anything differently as people, just the fact that there are more opportunities to come into contact with the ticks that cause brain disease will imply that there’s going to be more brain disease in the future. And this is also true of the fact that climate change is really good at exposing us to neurotoxins. Environmental degradation is really good at exposing us to neurotoxins that we might not otherwise come into contact with. Air pollution is a great example. Particulate matter is really, really bad for your brain. It’s one of these things that can cause low level inflammation in your brain. That chronically is likely one of the causes of something like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. So, these are really cellular level scientific effects at the level of the individual. It’s more about behavior. Think about the fact that, you’re maybe a little slower of a thinker on a hot day. You’re not a you’re not as good at solving problems. I certainly feel like I’m a little sluggish when it’s really warm out. And and we know from behavioral economics studies, for example, that, students are less good at taking exams on, on hot days. It’s also true that immigration judges, for example, are less likely to rule in favor of an asylum applicant on a hot day. All else equal. So so there there are some effects with respect to, cognition and impulsivity that manifest at the level of the person. And then there are the effects that are all about the manner in which we treat one another. And what is this doing to culture? And I think aggression is a nice example of that. The fact that people tend to be more aggressive on hotter days. We’re more prone toward violence. This is an effect that has been understood for centuries effectively, and I’ve again certainly felt it. But but the point here is that this is a this is a universal shared experience in terms of anybody, or anything with, a nervous system, basically a brain higher temperatures appear to be related, to aggression. And so as temperatures continue to rise, we should expect to see, more aggressive acts. And indeed, again, when you look at the behavioral economics literature, for example, you see relationships between heat and racial discrimination claims or sexual harassment claims. You see relationships between heat and violence. The likelihood of civil riots, the likelihood that a baseball pitcher is going to hit a batter of the opposing team with their pitches, the extent to which a penalty in the NFL is going to be aggressive or less aggressive. All of these things. There have been studies illustrating the relationship between heat, and these outcomes. And so it spans, I think, so many different spatial scales. And this is to say nothing of the mental health effects, of which I think many folks are already familiar. These ideas around climate anxiety, the fact that post-traumatic stress disorder can be a very likely outcome from something like experiencing a hurricane or a wildfire.”

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