How real is the smoke brain?


Keith Bein is a storm chaser – or whatever the equivalent of a wildfire is. An air quality researcher at UC Davis, he goes to fires, takes air samples, analyzes some at the scene, and brings others back to a lab for evaluation. He knows what it’s like to inhale the smoke from a forest fire. “I’ve been in situations where the air pollution is so thick that you can’t think of anything but How can I escape this? Or How can I get out of this?” he told me. “You really have to force yourself to concentrate.”

Call it “smoke brain”: that foggy feeling that comes from breathing in soot-clogged air. Many people can probably relate, especially Americans across the country who are currently marinating in the smoke of Canada’s wildfires. Researchers have good reason to believe that the smoke brain is a real phenomenon, in part because they can extrapolate the effects of stale air from other air pollution research. The science of how smoke from wildfires in particular affects your cognitive function, however, is in its infancy. Experts tell me that only a handful of studies have actually looked at what this smoke does to processing the brain.

This is partly because wildfires, while a natural part of our landscape, have become more unruly and have begun to affect more people. Researchers haven’t studied the public health effects of a giant wildfire sending plumes of smoke through a population center the size of Manhattan, because we haven’t spent decades anticipating that wildfires giant forest trees would regularly send plumes of smoke over population centers the size of Manhattan. . People weren’t used to inhaling wildfire smoke like this – not so often, or on this scale.

Then a warming climate supercharged the fires. In the past, you would have been “exposed to emissions from a large-scale wildfire maybe once in your lifetime, if that,” Bein explained. “And now it happens every season.” These fires also expose more people to more smoke for longer, sometimes multiple times in a single season. “These fires are bigger; they are more severe; they pump a lot of air pollution over great distances,” Bein said. Meanwhile, scientists are catching up.

In addition to numerous anecdotes, a few scattered studies on the brain of smoke exist. A 2022 article published in Natural durability examined student performance on standardized tests in more than 11,000 school districts across the United States and found that exposure to smoke was correlated with lower test scores. Similarly, a group of researchers analyzed cognitive performance data from a brain-training phone game called Lumosity, mapping user scores against wildfire smoke data. They found that medium and high smoke density were associated with lower scores.

The link between air pollution and a struggling brain is more well established. THE Nature The study cites previous work examining the effect of polluted air on all sorts of tasks, such as “performance in chess tournaments, stock trading, call center productivity, referee decisions , cognitive assessments and online puzzle games”. The results all indicated declining function. Another study showed that particle levels in the classroom reduced students’ ability to concentrate on the material being presented.

“I think these are probably a pretty good guide to what happens during wildfires, although we don’t know for sure,” Stanford University professor Marshall Burke told me. one of the study’s authors on the test results. Other studies have found links between pollution and neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.


Wildfire smoke might even be worse than, say, car exhaust. “In our research, we found it to be even more toxic than some of your standard air pollution sources,” Bein told me. The haze that drifts from the fires can contain tiny bits of all sorts of nasty things that have been incinerated – parts of houses or other things that have burned.

But this line of inquiry is quite recent. “The whole world of neurological impacts of air pollution in general is pretty new — we’re talking five years old,” Bein explained. Breathing smoke from wildfires irritates the body and can cause inflammation. In the past, researchers have tended to focus on how inhaling smoke affects the lungs or the heart. At least in theory, this inflammation could also affect the functioning of our brain. As Burke said, “We…We being the wider scientific community, I just hadn’t thought to look at cognitive outcomes until recently. He pointed out that until we fully understand the neurological impacts of wildfires, we will not fully understand their economic impacts. If everyone in a city like New York is functioning a little worse for a day or a week, the cost of that could be substantial.

And researchers are only beginning to think about how to disentangle the possible effects of stress on the fire itself from any direct cognitive impact of the smoke. “The biggest gap in our knowledge is that this would happen even if we weren’t stressed by the sheer anxiety of a wildfire,” Ana Rappold, an EPA scientist and one of the authors of the brain game study. .

Smoke brain aside, breathing smoke from a wildfire is not good for you. There are many well-established, non-smoke related reasons why you may want to avoid inhaling as much wildfire smoke as possible. Carlyn Matz, a risk assessor at Health Canada, the country’s health policy department, told me that wildfires harm people in three ways that meet the group’s scientific threshold for issuing health advice: l exposure exacerbates asthma, exacerbates chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and shortens life expectancy.

Everything else about the causes of smoke inhalation, she puts in the category of “emerging science”, including research on the neurological and mental health impacts of smoke inhalation, although she said she would like to see more work on these topics. Still, she pointed out that some of the precautions you can take now to avoid inhaling this worrisome concoction are likely to help if the science changes: “If I limit my exposure to wildfire smoke to limit asthma, I’m limiting also my forest fire. -exposure to smoke to potentially limit, such as, a neurological disorder [effect], as this evidence mounts. While we may not fully understand the consequences of what we breathe in for weeks like these, we know we want to keep it out of our bodies.

The fact that we have such limited research on the smoke brain is just another reminder of how much has changed and how quickly. Millions of people have already taken a breath of smoky air this year and wonder what consequences will linger for them. It is not only this era of science that is behind it; we are still catching up in other areas of major fire planning, such as evacuation policy. These mega-burns plunge us very quickly into a future that we do not fully understand.

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