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Brain Bank Researcher Featured in Emmy-Winning Documentary on Nanoplastics

Brain Endowment Bank neuroscientist Dr. David Davis discussed the impact of plastic on cognition in “We’re All Plastic People Now.”

In the Emmy®-winning PBS documentary, “We’re All Plastic People Now,” scientists comment on the impact of plastics in the human body.

Among the notable researchers featured in the film is David Davis, Ph.D., research professor and associate director of the Brain Endowment Bank at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Dr. Davis discusses his work on plastic’s potential effect on the human brain.

Miller School of Medicine neurologist Dr. David Davis examining the model of a brain
Dr. David Davis from the Brain Endowment Bank is an expert on the impact of plastic on the brain. (All photos courtesy of Rory Fielding.)

The documentary, directed by Rory Fielding and introduced by actor and environmentalist Ted Danson, garnered a 2023 Suncoast Emmy and was accepted into the prestigious 2024 Santa Fe Film Festival. “We’re All Plastic People Now” raises awareness of the need for further research and help guide policy outcomes related to plastics.

While plastic’s environmental harm is no secret, scientists in the documentary examined outcomes related to the foods we eat, the water we drink or the air we breathe. 

“Plastics are a growing public health concern because of their abundance in the environment and their ability to break down into smaller particles, increasing their toxicity,” Dr. Davis said. “We are on the cutting edge of knowledge regarding the effects of nanoplastics exposure on our cognition.”

"We Are All Plastic People Now" director Rory Fielding with his Emmy.
“We’re All Plastic People Now” director Rory Fielding with his Emmy.

Dr. Davis’ participation in the documentary helped Fielding form a compelling narrative of humanistic compassion backed by science.

“Dr. Davis was a great addition to the film, as his ability to explain scientific topics in an honest and passionate format made it easier to drive the point of the film across,” said Fielding. “Getting to listen to these researchers talk about their projects was truly a highlight in making the film, as it shows there is a strong core that cares about making and advocating for environmental changes.”

Below, Dr. Davis provides deeper insight into his research and the film.

What attracted you to your current field of study and research?

I grew up in an industrial city and saw the impact of pollution and other environmental stressors on my friends and family. As a result, I have focused on how environmental toxins cause cellular damage in vulnerable populations for almost two decades.

Talk a bit about “We are All Plastic People Now.”  What is the film about and why is it important?

The film highlighted the latest research on plastics and health, aiming to stimulate research and policy change that regulate how we produce, handle and dispose of plastics. This isn’t a new field of study. However, pop culture and citizen scientists have created a revived and urgent need for this work.

How were you selected to be part of the project and what role did you have?

Dr. David Davis
Behind the scenes of Dr. Davis filming his part of the documentary.

The film was already under production when we were awarded a research grant by the Herbert W. Hoover Foundation. Professor Rolf Halden, director of the Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering at the Arizona State University and co-principal investigator on the grant, invited me to participate in the documentary.

In the past, I mostly studied impacts of algal toxins on dolphins and humans. Plastics is a new area of study for me, but it merged well with the work I had previously done since these particles also contaminate water.

The film won an Emmy. How does it feel to be a part of the film’s success?

It is a great feeling to know the basic research we are doing in the Department of Neurology and in the Brain Endowment Bank will reach a broad audience. This is one of the most critical environmental issues we face and we urgently need a resolution. The bulk weight of plastics in our environment is increasing. Plastic debris can be found on mountaintops and in the deepest regions of the ocean, yet we know little about plastics and their impact on our health.

Your featured section talked about plastics’ relation to cognition. How is your research and the Brain Bank contributing to the scientific progress in this area?

Dr. Davis presents an image of a dying neuron seen in brown. He believes brain cells like this are most vulnerable to nanoplastics.
Dr. Davis presents an image of a dying neuron seen in brown. He believes brain cells like this are most vulnerable to nanoplastics.

At the Brain Endowment Bank, we are investigating whether airborne plastic nanoparticles can enter the brain through the olfactory nerve, which spans from our nasal epithelium into regions of the brain involved in learning and memory. If particles can enter the nasal epithelium and gain access to this nerve, they can travel to and build up in the brain, causing toxicity. Damage to this nerve is one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

In the documentary, Dr. Halden presented testing results from blood samples showing an individual can have 80 or more plastic-related compounds found circulating in their blood. Our goal is to see if the same holds true for the brain. So, we selected well-characterized autopsy brain samples from healthy and cognitively impaired brain donors for similar testing. We anticipate publishing the findings from this research study later this year.

What comes next with this research?

Every day, our knowledge of the neurotoxic properties of plastics and plasticizers like polystyrene and phthalates grows. Our study will evaluate a specific route of exposure in humans called the olfactory pathway, a window to the brain.

This route is of special interest since it does not contain the blood/brain barrier that would normally stop the entry of toxic compounds.  If we can determine the type of plastics that can accumulate in this nerve, we can begin to understand the impact they have on the brain and how to counteract it.

Tags: brain health, cognition, Dr. David Davis, neurology