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J Nanosci Nanotechnol. 2009 Aug;9(8):4996-5007.

Nanoparticles and the brain: cause for concern?.

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University of Rochester, Department of Environmental Medicine, 575 Elmwood Avenue, Rochester, NY 14642, USA.


Engineered nanoparticles (NPs) are in the same size category as atmospheric ultrafine particles, < 100 nm. Per given volume, both have high numbers and surface areas compared to larger particles. The high proportion of surface atoms/molecules can give rise to a greater chemical as well as biological activity, for example the induction of reactive oxygen species in cell-free medium as well as in cells. When inhaled as singlet particles, NPs of different sizes deposit efficiently in all regions of the respiratory tract by diffusion. A major difference to larger size particles is the propensity of NPs to translocate across cell barriers from the portal of entry (e.g., the respiratory tract) to secondary organs and to enter cells by various mechanisms and associate with subcellular structures. This makes NPs uniquely suitable for therapeutic and diagnostic uses, but it also leaves target organs such as the central nervous system (CNS) vulnerable to potential adverse effects (e.g., oxidative stress). Neuronal transport of NPs has been described, involving retrograde and anterograde movement in axons and dendrites as well as perineural translocation. This is of importance for access of inhaled NPs to the CNS via sensory nerves existing in the nasopharyngeal and tracheobronchial regions of the respiratory tract. The neuronal pathway circumvents the very tight blood brain barrier. In general, translocation rates of NP from the portal of entry into the blood compartment or the CNS are very low. Important modifiers of translocation are the physicochemical characteristics of NPs, most notably their size and surface properties, particularly surface chemistry. Primary surface coating (when NPs are manufactured) and secondary surface coating (adsorption of lipids/proteins occurring at the portal of entry and during subsequent translocation) can significantly alter NP biokinetics and their effects. Implications of species differences in respiratory tract anatomy, breathing pattern and brain anatomy for extrapolation to humans of NP effects observed in rodents need to be considered. Although there are anecdotal data indicating a causal relationship between long-term ultrafine particle exposures in ambient air (e.g., traffic related) or at the workplace (e.g., metal fumes) and resultant neurotoxic effects in humans, more studies are needed to test the hypothesis that inhaled nanoparticles cause neurodegenerative effects. Some but probably not the majority of NPs will have a significant toxicity (hazard) potential, and this will pose a significant risk if there is a sufficient exposure. The challenge is to identify such hazardous NPs and take appropriate measures to prevent exposure.

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