Brisbane lab hunts for plastic in human brains

The air is filtered several times per minute to ensure all circulating particles are captured and immobilized. And there’s a constant positive pressure that ensures airflow is always outward and never inward.

Researchers must move to an anteroom and airlock, and don pure cotton lab coats to limit the risk of losing plastic found in most textiles.

Sarah Dunlop and Kevin Thomas in front of the Minderoo Center – Plastics and Human Health research facility at the University of Queensland.

Sarah Dunlop and Kevin Thomas in front of the Minderoo Center – Plastics and Human Health research facility at the University of Queensland.Credit:Minderoo Foundation

When they’re finally in the clean room and it’s time to open brain and other samples, it’s done in a smaller metal chamber, sort of a clean room within a clean room.

It’s an extraordinary process, but absolutely necessary, says Kevin Thomas, director of the University of Queensland’s Alliance for Environmental Health Sciences.

“You have to keep that background signal as low as possible — preferably below what you can see — which is what we can do for nanoplastics there,” he says.

Most people have heard of microplastics – small fragments of plastic less than 5 millimeters long. But they’re enormous compared to the nanoplastics Thomas is looking for, the kind that might be able to cross the blood-brain barrier that protects them from circulating toxins or pathogens.

“To give you an idea of ​​how small we’re getting, we’re looking for things 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair — and under,” he said.

“Our first goal is to be able to measure them reliably in order to actually be able to say definitively whether they have crossed membranes into the body.”

Answering this crucial question will help determine what happens next.


“It’s really the first step to saying, ‘Well, if a particle enters the brain, what are the effects of that particle’s presence?’

“The body may be able to deal with it, or there may be mechanisms that could trigger some sort of adverse outcome.”

The Brisbane lab is the beating heart of the Minderoo Centre, a partnership between the university and mining billionaire Andrew Forrest’s philanthropic Minderoo Foundation, which funded the lab.

Sarah Dunlop, the foundation’s director of plastics and human health, said the partnership is focused on two research areas: detecting plastic particles themselves and studying chemical additives leached from plastic.

“We fight the invisible. You can see the plastic floating in the ocean, but you can’t see the plastic pollution in us,” she said.

“If we can prove that nanoplastics are in our brains or blood, that in itself is an invasion; a toxic trespassing.

“Detecting plastics and trusting the results is a very powerful statement to tell the world this plastic pollution needs to stop. But it’s more than that. We need to be totally disruptive and redesign plastic so it doesn’t break down into micro- and nanoplastics and doesn’t contain toxic chemicals.

“We hope that the scientific evidence will inform government policy and health advice regarding exposure to plastic and the chemicals.”

-AAP Brisbane lab hunts for plastic in human brains

Callan Tansill

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