New Research Shows There is Probably Plastic in your Brain

medical model of inside the brain
Image by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

Plastic has been known to make its way into our bodies. It has been found in blood, breast milk and placentas. The latest place it’s been discovered, though, is in our brains. Two separate studies have now shown that drinking or inhaling plastic can cause it to end up in your brain and possibly cause terrible side effects.

The first study was done by researchers at the University of Vienna on mice. They found that plastic particles could be discovered in the brains of mice two hours after drinking water contaminated with polystyrene. Polystyrene is a type of plastic commonly used in styrofoam takeout containers and yogurt cups. One of the researchers, Lukas Kenner, stated that once in the brain, “plastic particles could increase the risk of inflammation, neurological disorders, or even neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.” 

More research is needed to accurately determine the relationship between plastic and brain disorders, but researchers found that alongside more long-term, degenerative consequences, short-term effects also exist. They believe that short-term effects of microplastic contamination in our brains could cause cognitive impairment, neurotoxicity and possibly altered neurotransmitter levels. The study found that microplastics travel into the brain through a previously unknown biological transport mechanism in which the plastics are absorbed into cholesterol molecules on the brain membrane surface. Once absorbed, they are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. 

The second study, done in China in 2022, focused more on nasally inhaled plastics. Researchers reported that “an obvious neurotoxicity” of the microplastics was observed. Inhaling plastics was found to lead to reduced functioning of brain enzymes also known to malfunction in patients with Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. 

With researchers still conducting more studies on how plastics may impact our health, it is best to take precautions. There are a couple of things you could do to reduce your plastic intake. First of all, you can use reusable bags made out of things other than plastic, like cloth, when shopping. Current grocery bags are often made of a plastic called LDPE Low, which takes 500-1000 years to break down. 

Second of all, you can buy more bulk food and fewer packaged products. Buying in bulk when possible can be a convenient way to save both money and the environment. You can also replace your plastic Tupperware with glass or steel containers. Not only will you be using less plastic, but plastic containers can release harmful substances. 

Buying biodegradable products when possible is also another good way to reduce your plastic use. Most people aren’t aware, but most of the chewing gum on the market contains plastic. You can buy less gum, buy gum that is made with natural ingredients and take caution when throwing compostables into the correct recycling container.

In cases where you have no choice but to buy something with plastic packaging, you can reuse it and give it a new purpose, like storing food. It’s also important that plastic waste makes its way in the correct recycling container, and that it is properly prepared to be recycled. Dirty food containers do not get recycled. Before tossing, check to make sure that the item is recyclable. Having garbage in with your recycling could mean that none of it gets recycled.  

The idea that plastic is harmful for our bodies is nothing new. The Canadian government classified plastic as toxins in 2021, and single-use plastic bags are banned in over 100 countries. There are chemicals in certain kinds of plastic that are known carcinogens, or hormone disruptors. These have been found to cause diabetes, reproductive disorders and obesity. Yet, plastic production still holds strong. And health is not the only concern: plastic can take anywhere from five to over 500 years to break down, causing growing environmental concerns considering how much plastic is used and produced annually. It’s estimated that by 2050, there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish. Hopefully, as more studies come out about the harms of having so much plastic in our lives, governments will be more motivated to change their guidelines.