Cheryl Heard

Cheryl Heard

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Cheryl Heard

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Start Year

2021 (Cohort 8)

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PhD Project
PhD Title

Investigating the chronic impacts of urban air quality on the brain using wild grey squirrels as sentinels for urban wildlife

Research Theme

Environmental Hazards and Pollution

Primary Supervisor
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Secondary Supervisor
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Air pollution is recognised globally as one of the deadliest hazards to human health. Urban air pollution has a unique physiochemistry and contains hazardous levels of metal particulates originating mainly from traffic-related sources. Epidemiological studies on humans and companion animals have associated exposure to high levels of air pollutants with cancer, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and more recently, poor cognitive development and increased incidence of dementia. Despite strong correlative evidence of the impact of air pollution on human health and cognition, there is very limited empirical evidence for impacts on other urban animals. Furthermore, there is limited understanding of the causative mechanisms underlying the observed cognitive decline, though it has been proposed that airborne metal particles may access the brain via uptake by olfactory neurons. This studentship aims to use the eastern grey squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), an invasive rodent found throughout the UK and culled as part of UK control programs, to elucidate the mechanisms associated with the uptake of metal air pollutants in the brain. This will allow me to measure metal-pollution exposure pathways into the brain and quantify metal accumulation and spatial distribution of metal particles. Furthermore, I will measure response to metal pollution exposure by examining markers of stress and epigenetic changes in these individuals as well as signs of disease development by assessing levels of brain inflammation and neurodegeneration through histopathology and differences in cognition in populations of grey squirrels living at a gradient of metal air pollution from highly polluted inner-city populations to those living in rural woodlands with lower urban-traffic exposures.

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