SELECTED ON-GOING PROJECTS

Air Pollution and Cognitive Function

A main research focus of our group is to better understand how air pollution impacts the human brain and cognitive functioning. This research is currently supported by one NIH/NIA R01 award (R01 AG079170; Huels/Wingo) and three on-going or recently completed pilot projects.

NIH/NIA R01AG079170 (09/30/22-08/31/27)

Air pollution exposure is a well-established risk factor for many health conditions including dementia. Yet, how air pollution affects dementia is poorly understood. Here, we aim determine the role of air pollution on two of the most common causes of dementia, namely Alzheimer's disease and vascular cognitive impairment, using well-characterized diverse longitudinal studies of brain aging that will provide biological insights and identify characteristics for people at higher risk (e.g., sex and race/ethnicity).

ADRC Pilot Project (05/01/21-04/30/23)

In this project we will integrate and simultaneously analyze multi-omics data (metabolome and epigenome) to investigate the molecular connection underlying the impact of air pollution exposures on human brain and neuropathology using postmortem brains from the Emory University Goizueta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (ADRC) Neuropathology Core Brain Bank. Our multidisciplinary team of investigators will conduct high-resolution metabolic profiling on brain tissues from ~150 donors of the ADRC brain bank and we will leverage several complementary projects with advanced air pollution exposure assessment and DNA methylation data on the same brain tissues. 

Dean's Pilot Project (08/10/20-07/31/22)

This study will analyze associations of air pollution exposure with neuropathology and epigenetic markers (DNA methylation) in human postmortem brains from the Emory University Goizueta Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center Neuropathology Core Brain Bank. The results of this study will provide data on the consequences of air pollution on neuropathology – a biological pathway that has been hypothesized for over a decade, but for which only very little data has been generated.

More details about the project can be found here.

HERCULES Pilot Project (04/01/20-03/31/22)

Outdoor air pollution from traffic, power plants, and other industry is the largest environmental cause of disease and premature death in the world. Recent studies have shown that some particular air pollutants can also affect our brain and increase the risk for dementia, a cognitive decline that affects behavior and thought processes. However, in real life, we inhale more than one air pollutant at a time and the interaction between many pollutants might be particularly dangerous. Our study will use data from the Emory Healthy Aging Study (EHAS), which is the largest research study on aging in Atlanta. We will link EHAS questionnaire data with data on traffic-related air pollution for each participant based on their residential location. Using the linked database, we will estimate relationships between air pollutant mixtures and different stages of cognitive decline. The results of this study will promote awareness about the harmful effects of air pollution mixtures on the human brain.

 

More details about the project can be found here.

Collaborators

  • Thomas and Aliza Wingo from the School of Medicine at Emory University

  • Donghai Liang from the Rollins School of Public Health

  • James Lah, Allan Levey, Marla Gearing, Dean Jones from the School of Medicine at Emory University

  • Stefanie Ebelt, Lance Waller, Michele Marcus, Liuhua Shi, Douglas Walker from the Rollins School of Public Health

Recent publications

  • The complex relationship of air pollution and neighborhood socioeconomic status and their association with cognitive decline (peer-reviewed article)

  • Neighborhood characteristics as confounders and effect modifiers for the association between air pollution exposure and subjective cognitive functioning (peer-reviewed article)

Current research assistants:

  • Emma Casey (MSPH Student in Epidemiology)

  • Grace Christensen (PhD Candidate in Epidemiology)

  • Zhenjiang Li (PhD Candidate in Environmental Health Sciences)

  • Yiyang Mei (JD/MPH Student in Epidemiology)

  • Terry Zhou (MPH Student in Epidemiology)

Child Health in South Africa

Impact of genetics, epigenetics and environmental risk factors

Collaboration with Heather Zar, Dan Stein, Aneesa Vanker and many other wonderful colleagues at the University of Cape Town &

Michael Kobor and his lab at the University of British Columbia

Recent preprints and publications:

  • Application of methylation risk scores in multi-ancestry populations (preprint)

  • DNA methylation as a potential mediator of the association between indoor air pollution and neurodevelopmental delay (preprint)

  • DNA methylation as a potential mediator of the association between prenatal tobacco and alcohol exposure and neurodevelopment (preprint)

  • Indoor air pollution, epigenetic gestational age and neurodevelopment (peer-reviewed article)

  • Neonatal biomarkers for neurodevelopmental delay (peer-reviewed article)

  • Maternal depression and newborn DNA methylation (peer-reviewed article)

  • Indoor air pollution, genetics and lung function (peer-reviewed article)

More information about the Drakenstein Child Health Study can be found here.

With the Drakenstein Child Health Study we are also part of the Pregnancy And Childhood Epigenetics (PACE) consortium, which is comprised of researchers at NIEHS and around the world who are interested in studying the early life environmental impacts on human disease using epigenetics.

Recent preprints and publications:

  • DNA methylation and general psychopathology in childhood: An epigenome-wide meta-analysis from the PACE consortium (preprint)

Research assistants:

  • Sarina Abrishamcar (PhD Student in Epidemiology)

  • Emma Casey (MSPH Student in Epidemiology)

  • Junyu Chen (PhD Student in Epidemiology)

  • Grace Christensen (PhD Candidate in Epidemiology)

  • Dakotah Feil (MPH Student in Epidemiology)

  • Sara Van Cor (MPH Student in Epidemiology)

Air Pollution and Incidence of Childhood Cancer
Winship Invest$ Pilot Project

In this project we investigate associations between ambient air pollutant mixtures and the incidence of childhood cancer in Georgia, USA. 

Though cancer is the third most common cause of death among children and the chronic health burden in cancer survivors is substantial, little is known regarding early-life factors in association with cancer. There is robust evidence for an association between leukemia and traffic-related air pollution, but fewer research has been conducted for other cancer types. We investigate associations between ambient air pollution and the three most common types of childhood cancer (CNS tumors, leukemia and lymphomas) using data from 2003 to 2017 from the Georgia Cancer Registry, which includes ~4,000 cases diagnosed at the age of 0 to 19 years.

Research assistants:

  • Grace Christensen (PhD Candidate in Epidemiology)

  • Theresa Unseld (DAAD Visiting Scholar)

COVID-19 in Individuals with Down Syndrome
T21RS COVID-19 initiative

International initiative to better understand the risk and to formulate appropriate recommendations to protect individuals with Down syndrome against COVID-19.

 

Our results, which are based on more than 1,000 COVID-19 patients with Down syndrome, show that individuals with Down syndrome often have more severe symptoms at hospitalization and experience high rates of lung complications associated with increased mortality. These results have implications for preventive and clinical management of COVID-19 patients with Down syndrome and emphasize the need to prioritize individuals with Down syndrome for vaccination. 

More details about the project can be found here.

 

Recent publications:

Selected interviews and media coverage:

  • Hüls A interviewed by Science Magazine (Dec. 15, 2020, based on our medRxiv Preprint)​

  • Hüls A interviewed by 11Alive (Feb. 23, 2021, NBC-affiliated television station in Georgia, USA)​

  • Hüls A cited in Mint (Feb. 27, 2021, Indian daily newspaper)​

  • Hüls A interviewed by USA Today (Mar. 8, 2021, most read daily newspaper in the USA)

  • Hüls A interviewed by Verywell (Mar. 18, 2021, ranked in the top 10 health information sites, reaching 17 million US unique users each month)

Impact: Partly based on our findings, individuals with Down syndrome have been prioritized for vaccination in many countries all over the world. We have published a tracker, which countries and US states and territories are already vaccinating individuals with Down syndrome against COVID-19: https://www.t21rs.org/covid_vaccination/ 

Research assistants:

  • Lisa Chung (PhD Student in Epidemiology)

  • Chloee Henley (MPH Student in Epidemiology)