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Neurotoxic potential of in vitro exposure to micro- and nanoplastics (ZonMW)

Principle investigator: Jonelle Meijer, B.Sc 
Project leader: R.H.S. Westerink, Ph.D.
Project description:

Exposure to micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs) is nowadays unavoidable. It is however unclear if there are any adverse effects associated with exposure to MNPs. As the brain is amongst the most sensitive organs of our body, the aim of this project is to determine the potential neurotoxic effects of exposure to (environmentally relevant) micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs).



This project is focused on two central questions: Can MNPs reach the brain, and are MNPs able to affect neuronal development and function.

To investigate if MNPs can reach the brain, an in vitro human BBB model grown on inserts will be exposed to different sizes of plastic particles, including fluorescent polystyrene reference particles as well as environmentally relevant polyethylene particles. The ability of plastic particles to cross the BBB and thus reach the brain will be assessed by collecting and analyzing the medium for the presence of MNPs using flow cytometry and (fluorescence) microscopy.

In parallel, functional neurotoxicity will be determined using multiwell microelectrode array recordings (mwMEA). The MEA provides a real-time recording of the activity of neurons and can be used as a measure to determine adverse effects. Potential effects of MNP exposure will be assessed following short-term acute exposures as well as following chronic exposures during the development of the neuronal culture.

In the final stage of the project, efforts will focus on functional integration of the BBB model with MEA recordings of neuronal cultures.


Given the global abundance and environmental persistence, humans are continuously exposed to micro- and nanoplastics (MNPs). Despite their abundance, even in consumer products, drinking water and the food chain, the effects of MNPs on human health have not been extensively studied. However, current evidence indicates that MNPs can be taken up by mammals and can reach the brain. Nevertheless, to date, there is no solid hazard characterisation of MNPs with respect to neurotoxicity. This project on the potential neurotoxic effects of small plastic particles is part of the ZonMW research programme Microplastics & Health.


Recent publications:

- Prüst M, Meijer J, Westerink RHS. The plastic brain: neurotoxicity of micro- and nanoplastics. Part Fibre Toxicol. 17, 24 (2020).