Agent Orange linked to Alzheimer’s — and there’s good chance you’ve been exposed

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — More than 50 years after the Vietnam War ended, the infamous herbicide Agent Orange continues to haunt many veterans. Research warns that millions of Americans have likely been exposed to the dangerous substance as well due to its widespread use in commercial weed killers. A study from Brown University reveals how exposure to Agent Orange can trigger brain changes that lead to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s in aging veterans.

Agent Orange, a synthetic herbicide, was extensively utilized by the U.S. military between 1965 and 1970 to clear foliage in Vietnam. Its application uncovered enemy hideouts, but inadvertently exposed an estimated 2.6 million U.S. service members to its toxic chemicals. Subsequent reports linked Agent Orange to a slew of health issues, ranging from birth defects in the children of exposed individuals to an elevated risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes in those directly exposed.

“Scientists realized that Agent Orange was a neurotoxin with potential long-term effects, but those weren’t shown in a clear way. That’s what we were able to show with this study,” said study author Dr. Suzanne M. De La Monte, a professor of pathology and neurosurgery at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School, in a statement.

New Clues Into Agent Orange’s Brain Impact

The new Brown University study found that Agent Orange chemicals called dioxins damage brain tissue in a way that mirrors early-stage Alzheimer’s disease. Specifically, dioxins led to degeneration of frontal lobe tissue along with molecular and biochemical abnormalities typically seen in Alzheimer’s.

“Looking for the early effects tells us that there is a problem that is going to cause trouble later on and also gives us a grip on the mechanism by which the agent is causing trouble,” said De La Monte. “So if you were going to intervene, you would know to focus on that early effect, monitor it and try to reverse it.

Vietnam War
The notorious toxin called Agent Orange impacts the brain, particularly targeting the frontal lobe with damage that mirrors early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. (Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash)

Using rat brain samples, the researchers exposed frontal lobe tissue to two key ingredients in Agent Orange: 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and 2,4,5-trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4,5-T). They found that both chemicals independently caused brain cell degeneration and DNA damage associated with Alzheimer’s.

Prior studies have linked Agent Orange exposure with an increased risk of nervous system diseases like Parkinson’s and ALS in veterans. But concrete evidence showing how Agent Orange triggers brain changes that lead to neurodegeneration has been lacking.

De La Monte hopes to study donated brain tissue from veterans to clarify Agent Orange’s long-term impact. Confirming the link between wartime chemical exposures and brain disease decades later would open doors for veterans and their families to receive more support and compensation.

“If we can show that prior exposure to Agent Orange leads to subsequent neurodegenerative disease, then that gives veterans a chance to get help,” she said.

Beyond Vietnam Vets: ‘We’ve All Been Exposed’

Disturbingly, the researchers noted that millions of Americans have had some degree of exposure to Agent Orange-related chemicals 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. Even though it was banned in the U.S. in 1971, experts say the chemicals stuck around in the environment for decades. Even worse, because use was largely uncontrolled, some commercial weed killers and other pesticides containing the chemicals could have continued to be used.

“These chemicals don’t just affect veterans; they affect our entire population,” said De La Monte. “That’s why it’s so important to look into the effects of these chemicals. They are in the water; they are everywhere. We’ve all been exposed.”

Considering the vast usage of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T over decades, De La Monte estimates that one in three Americans has biomarker evidence indicating past exposures. De La Monte argues that current pesticide policies fail to account for the alarming impacts of Agent Orange-related ingredients on human brain health. Even with growing recognition of the harms 2,4-D, experts say concern hasn’t been strong enough to cause federal agencies to ban its use.

Veteran battling PTSD
Veterans who served during the Vietnam War could be suffering from Alzheimer’s disease as a result of exposure to Agent Orange, new research shows. (Stock Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels)

Ongoing Agent Orange Research

De La Monte plans additional investigations using human brain tissue to evaluate how wartime chemical exposures may trigger latent neurodegeneration in aging veterans. By focusing on early neuropathological changes, researchers aim to trace how substances like Agent Orange can impact brain health over decades.

For aging vets already experiencing cognitive decline, De La Monte’s research brings bittersweet news. While there are currently no treatments to reverse neurodegeneration from Agent Orange, identifying mechanisms linking the herbicide to brain disease could open new monitoring and therapeutic targets in the future.

In addition, concrete evidence that chemical exposures in Vietnam led to veterans’ health issues today could help families access more support services and compensation.

Almost six decades since the last Agent Orange spraying missions in Vietnam, closure continues to elude many vets. But with dedicated researchers determined to unravel links between wartime toxin exposures and modern neurodegenerative disease, hope persists for aging veterans and their loved ones.

The study is published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

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About the Author

Matt Higgins

Matt Higgins worked in national and local news for 15 years. He started out as an overnight production assistant at Fox News Radio in 2007 and ended in 2021 as the Digital Managing Editor at CBS Philadelphia. Following his news career, he spent one year in the automotive industry as a Digital Platforms Content Specialist contractor with Subaru of America and is currently a freelance writer and editor for StudyFinds. Matt believes in facts, science and Philadelphia sports teams crushing his soul.

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  1. My husband, an Army veteran of the Vietnam era died from Agent Orange in 2013. As hard as that was to comprehend, I have reason to believe that my son who was conceived after my husband’s return from Vietnam has suffered from spinal cancer due to agent orange. The reason I feel confident of this is due to the fact that after his original surgery to remove his tumor the doctor stated to me that for that tumor to have grown that large it had to have been there a very long time possibly since birth. He has had cancer in his spine three times and currently has it in the conus of the spine. He suffers from mental disabilities as well which I feel come from the issues with his spine. I would love for this information to open an opportunity for more research into this horrible circumstance we live with forever.

  2. Vietnam Combat service with173rd Airborne Brigade as Infantryman in Triple Canopy Jungle which was Sprayed regularly to Defoliate the Jungle after Combat and/or Expose enemy combatants and reduce eliminate enemy hideouts .

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