Early-life exposure to nature might lead to positive structural brain changes. In a new study, researchers found that young children raised in homes surrounded by more green space exhibited more white and grey matter in certain brain regions. These structural differences are linked to positive effects on cognitive function.
The research, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, was led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) in collaboration with the Hospital del Mar (Spain) and the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health (UCLA FSPH).
“This study adds to the existing evidence about the benefits of transforming our cities by increasing access to the natural environment,” said Professor Jordi Sunyer, a researcher at ISGlobal.
The study involved a group of 253 elementary school children from the BREATHE project in Barcelona, Spain. Lifelong exposure to residential green space was analyzed using satellite-based information on the children’s addresses from birth up through to the time of the study.
Brain anatomy was studied using high-resolution 3D magnetic resonance images (MRI); working memory and inattentiveness were evaluated with computerized tests.
“This is the first study that evaluates the association between long-term exposure to green space and brain structure,” said Dr. Payam Dadvand, ISGlobal researcher and leading author of the study. “Our findings suggest that exposure to green space early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain.”
The analysis revealed that long-term exposure to greenness was linked to greater volume of white and grey matter in certain parts of the brain that overlap with regions associated with higher scores on cognitive tests.
Furthermore, greater volumes of white and grey matter in the regions associated with green space exposure predicted better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.
Previous research has suggested that exposure to nature is essential for brain development in children. For example, in an earlier 12-month study of 2,593 children ages seven to 10 from the BREATHE project, researchers found that children who attended schools with more outdoor greenspace had stronger working memories and fewer problems with inattention compared to children in schools with less surrounding greenness.
The Biophilia hypothesis suggests that humans have an evolutionary bond with nature. Accordingly, green spaces offer children psychological restoration and greater opportunities for discovery, creativity and risk taking, which, in turn, are suggested to positively influence various aspects of brain development.
In addition, greener areas tend to have lower levels of air pollution and noise and may enrich microbial inputs from the environment, all of which could lead to indirect benefits for brain development.
“The study adds to growing evidence suggesting that early life exposure to green space and other environmental factors can exert measurable and lasting effects on our health through the life course,” says co-author Dr. Michael Jerrett, department chair and professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.