Global Warming May Dwindle the Supply of a Key Brain Nutrient
By Bret Stetka
Glaciers continue to melt. Sea levels are on the rise. And now scientists believe the changing climate may put our brains at risk. A new analysis predicts that by 2100, increasing water temperatures brought on by a warming planet could result in 96 percent of the world's population not having access to an omega-3 fatty acid crucial to brain health and function.
That molecule is called docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA. It is the most common fatty acid in the mammalian brain and plays a key role in the survival and function of our neural cells, especially during the organ's development. Data suggest that not having enough of the compound may increase the risk of conditions such as depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and impair cognition in people with early dementia.
Our bodies do not make much DHA, so, for the most part, we obtain it through diet. Plants and meats have modest amounts of the fatty acid, but the most abundant source by far is fish (or fish-derived supplements). Fish obtain DHA by consuming algae. The authors of the new study predict that rising temperatures could disrupt algal DHA production and lead to a 10 to 58 percent reduction in availability of the compound, depending on the geographic region.
To predict the future of DHA availability, they used data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the fishery research institute Sea around Us to get numbers on how much edible fish are caught and farmed worldwide each year and on how much of that maritime tonnage is composed of DHA-containing fat. Then, using data showing how temperature influences algal DHA production, the researchers determined roughly how much of the fatty acid is presently available by consuming fish per capita versus how much will be available 80 years from now.
Their predictions show that larger countries with rapid population growth in East and Southeast Asia — including China, Japan and Indonesia — will face the most severe DHA shortages. Most African countries — especially landlocked ones — will also end up falling below recommended DHA intake, whereas nations with small populations and active fishing industries, such as Norway, Chile and New Zealand, will likely maintain access to adequate omega-3s.
"I already had an idea that DHA would decrease, based on previous data," recalls Stefanie Colombo, an assistant professor in aquaculture nutrition at Dalhousie University and co-lead author on the new paper. "But I was surprised and concerned when we saw the decline in DHA per capita—that people in some areas of the world would be more affected."
Tom Brenna, a professor with joint appointments in pediatrics, chemistry and human nutrition at the University of Texas at Austin, points out that the new results are open to a range of interpretation: "The [predicted] interval of 10 to 58 percent is so large as to be the difference between a mild inconvenience and a calamity." Yet he welcomes any investigation into the global DHA supply.
Brenna, who was not involved in the new study, also points out that whether or not dietary DHA is necessary in adults has been an area of conflict for decades. Yet he and most experts in the field agree that it is a critical nutrient during brain development and even into the late teen years — and that its influence on brain function may vary, based on an individual's genetic profile.
Omega-3 fatty acids can be derived from terrestrial sources, including nuts, seeds and land animals. Yet as Michael Crawford, now at Imperial College London, discovered in the 1970s, "ready-made" DHA — such as found in fish — is incorporated into the developing brain with 10-fold greater efficiency than plant-sourced DHA.
Crawford is a pioneer in understanding the relationship between omega-3 fatty acids and brain health and believes that the evolution of our big and complex primate brain would have been impossible without access to DHA. He also thinks that a decline in consumption of omega-3s because of our increasingly processed diet explains increasing rates of mental illness and declining IQ. Marine agriculture such as projects now underway in Japan might be essential to saving ourselves and the planet. "If mental illness continues to escalate, then Homo sapiens are finished," Crawford predicts. "Seventy-one percent of the planet's surface is water, and marine cultivation will help reverse this trend. Without farming the seabed and oceans, food security goes out of the window."
Aquaculture initiatives abound throughout the world, including those intent on farming algae as a source of DHA. Other researchers are using genetic engineering to grow plants with a more available form of the fatty acid. And Richard P. Bazinet, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto and a co-author of the new paper, is working to understand how DHA enters the brain and how much of it a healthy adult brain actually needs.
Colombo is hopeful that in the face of a changing climate, scientists will devise new sources of DHA. And she plans to study how warming waters will affect fish metabolism and DHA availability. Yet she admits the outcome does not look good: "I don't think this is something we can ignore. In terms of the climate warming, we can't continue on this same trajectory."
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that have numerous health benefits. This article takes a detailed look at the 3 most important types of omega-3shttps://t.co/I8K8jqZiUl— Frank Lipman MD (@DrFrankLipman) July 10, 2019
This story originally appeared in Scientific American. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
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Human actions have taken a steep toll on whales and dolphins. Some studies estimate that small whale abundance, which includes dolphins, has fallen 87% since 1980 and thousands of whales die from rope entanglement annually. But humans also cause less obvious harm. Researchers have found changes in the stress levels, reproductive health and respiratory health of these animals, but this valuable data is extremely hard to collect.
Researchers work with trained dolphins to learn more about their sensory abilities, seen here testing a dolphin's hearing. Jason Bruck / CC BY-ND
A Lot to Learn From Hormones<p>When sampling the blow, we are looking for hormones in mucus as these can be used to gauge psychological and physiological health. We are specifically interested in <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0114062" target="_blank">hormones like cortisol</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2018.04.003" target="_blank">progesterone</a>, which indicate stress levels and reproductive ability respectively, but can also help determine overall health.</p><p>Additionally, blow samples can detect <a href="https://dx.doi.org/10.1128%2FmSystems.00119-17" target="_blank">respiratory pathogens</a> in the lungs or nasal passages - blowholes evolved from noses after all.</p><p>This health analysis is especially important in areas with oil spills as the chemicals can cause hormonal problems that harm <a href="https://www.carmmha.org/investigating-how-oil-spills-affect-dolphins-and-whales/" target="_blank">development, metabolism and reproduction</a> in dolphins.</p><p>Hormone samples can provide scientists with valuable data, but collecting them from intelligent and unpredictable animals is challenging.</p>
Cetacean Collaborators<p>To build a drone that can stealthily collect spray from moving dolphins, we needed more data on their eyesight and hearing, and this is data that couldn't be collected in the wild nor simulated in a lab.</p><p>We worked with dolphins at facilities like Dolphin Quest in Bermuda, which provides guests opportunities to learn about dolphins while allowing <a href="https://dolphinquest.com/about-us/our-story/" target="_blank">scientists access to animals for noninvasive research</a>. Here the dolphins can swim away if they choose not to work with us, so we had to design the study like a game; the way a kindergarten teacher entertains a class. If the dolphins aren't interested, we don't get to do the science.</p><p>Over the course of hundreds of sessions, we sought to answer two questions: What can dolphins hear and what can they see around their heads?</p><p>To test dolphin hearing, we set up microphones and cameras to record dolphin behavior as we played drone noise in the air. We analyzed the responses to each noise – such as how many dolphins looked at the speaker – and used these as a proxy for their ability to hear the sounds.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5f31daf07a652b8d64a093b993ee4e96"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UjmQeH3vXHI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Robodolphin doesn't look like a real dolphin, but it doesn't need to in order to train our drone pilots. C.J. Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND<p>To build robodolphin, we worked with dolphins trained to "chuff" or sneeze on command to measure spray characteristics. We used high-speed photography to see the dolphins' breath as it moved through the air. Then we conducted high resolution CT scans of a dolphin head and 3D-printed a replica of a nasal passage.</p><p>Now, we have a complete robodolphin and are tweaking its sprays to be nearly identical to the real thing. This will allow us to determine how close we need to get to collect the samples, and therefore, how quiet our drone needs to be.</p>
The replica dolphin blowhole was designed from a scan of a real blowhole passage, and the spray it produces closely matches the real thing. Alvin Ngo, Mitch Ford and CJ Barton / Oklahoma State University / CC BY-ND
A Bit of Practice, Then Into the Wild<p>In the next few months, we will test flights over robodolphin with existing drones to determine the timing and strategy for collection. From there, we will fabricate a low-noise drone that can fly fast enough and with sufficient maneuverability to capture samples from wild dolphins. Like a video game, we will use the visual field data to develop approach trajectories to stay in the visual blindspots.</p><p>We plan to test our drones on a truck-mounted robodolphin moving down a runway, then using a boat to simulate realistic conditions. The next steps will involve ocean testing with dolphins trained for open ocean swimming. These tests will determine if our devices can catch and hold the hormones as the drone flies back to a researcher's boat.</p><p>Finally, we will deploy the system to collect data on wild dolphins. Our first goal is to test resident dolphins – animals that live on the coasts and deal directly with boat and oil industry noise – which will allow us to learn more about stress resulting from human impacts.</p><p>Those samples are a way off, but if all goes well we will have a specially built drone capable of flying long distances and capturing samples undetected in a few years. The samples collected will allow researchers to do better science with impact on the animals they study.</p>
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Environmental and Health Hazard<p>Experts say e-waste, which is now the world's fastest-growing domestic waste stream, poses serious environmental and health risks.</p><p>Simply throwing away electronic items without ensuring they get properly recycled leads to the loss of key materials such as iron, copper and gold, which can otherwise be recovered and used as primary raw materials to make new equipment, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions from extraction and refinement of raw materials.</p><p>Refrigerants found in electronic equipment such as fridge and air conditioners also contribute to global warming. A total of 98 Mt of CO2-equivalents, or about 0.3% of global energy-related emissions, were released into the atmosphere in 2019 from discarded refrigerators and ACs that were not recycled properly, the report said.</p><p>E-waste contains several toxic additives or hazardous substances, such as mercury and brominated flame retardants (BFR), and simply burning it or throwing it away could lead to serious health issues. Several studies have linked unregulated recycling of e-waste to adverse birth outcomes like stillbirth and premature birth, damages to the human brain or nervous system and in some cases hearing loss and heart troubles.</p><p>"Informal and improper e-waste recycling is a major emerging hazard silently affecting our health and that of future generations. One in four children are dying from avoidable environmental exposures," said Maria Neira, director of the Environment, Climate Change and Health Department at the World Health Organization. "One in four children could be saved, if we take action to protect their health and ensure a safe environment."</p>
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