Brain alterations and cognitive impairment linked to air pollution

Brain alterations and cognitive impairment linked to air pollution
Cityscape of Rotterdam in the Netherlands

A new study in the Netherlands has discovered a link between residential air pollution exposure among school-age children and brain abnormalities and cognitive impairment.

The study reports that the air pollution levels related to brain alterations and cognitive impairment were below the considered safe amount.

Mònica Guxens, MD, of Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), Spain, said: “We observed brain development effects in relationship to fine particles levels below the current EU limit.

“This finding adds to previous studies that have linked acceptable air pollution levels with other complications including cognitive decline and foetal growth development.

“Therefore, we cannot warrant the safety of the current levels of air pollution in our cities.”

What does pollution do to the brain?

During foetal life, exposure to fine particles was associated with a thinner outer layer of the brain, called the cortex, in several regions.

The study showed that the brain abnormalities partly contribute to difficulty with inhibitory control, the ability to regulate self-control over temptations and impulsive behaviour. This is related to mental health problems such as addictive behaviour and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

The researchers monitored 783 children in the Netherlands from foetal life onward and then brain imaging was performed when they were between six and ten years old.

The scan revealed abnormalities in the thickness of the brain cortex of the praecuneus and rostral middle frontal region.

Long-term consequences

John Krystal, MD, editor of Biological Psychiatry, said: “Air pollution is so obviously bad for lungs, heart, and other organs that most of us have never considered its effects on the developing brain. But perhaps we should have learned from studies of maternal smoking that inhaling toxins may have lasting effects on cognitive development.

“Although specific individual clinical implications of these findings cannot be quantified, based on other studies, the observed cognitive delays at early ages could have significant long-term consequences such as increased risk of mental health disorders and low academic achievement, in particular due to the ubiquity of the exposure.”

The study suggests that even exposure to levels deemed safe could cause permanent brain damage.


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