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Air Pollution at Birth Can Change How Brain Develops

A new study finds a link between significant early childhood exposure to traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) and structural changes in the brain at the age of 12.

According to researchers at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, children with higher levels of TRAP exposure at birth had reductions at age 12 in gray matter volume and cortical thickness compared to children with lower levels of exposure.

“The results of this study, though exploratory, suggest that where you live and the air you breathe can affect how your brain develops,” said Travis Beckwith, Ph.D., a research fellow at Cincinnati Children’s and lead author of the study. “While the percentage of loss is far less than what might be seen in a degenerative disease state, this loss may be enough to influence the development of various physical and mental processes.”

Gray matter includes regions of the brain involved in motor control, as well as sensory perception, such as seeing and hearing, he explained. Cortical thickness reflects the outer gray matter depth.

The study found that specific regions in the frontal and parietal lobes and the cerebellum were affected with decreases of 3 to 4 percent.

“If early life TRAP exposure irreversibly harms brain development, structural consequences could persist regardless of the time point for a subsequent examination,” Beckwith noted.

For the study, researchers used magnetic resonance imaging to obtain anatomical brain images from 147 12-year-olds. These children are part of the Cincinnati Childhood Allergy and Air Pollution Study (CCAAPS), which recruited volunteers before the age of six months to examine early childhood exposure to TRAP and health outcomes.

The volunteers had either high or low levels of TRAP exposure during their first year of life. The researchers estimated exposure using an air sampling network of 27 sites in the Cincinnati area, and 24/7 sampling was conducted simultaneously at four or five sites over different seasons. The children and their caregivers completed clinic visits at ages 1, 2, 3, 4, 7 and 12.

Previous studies of TRAP suggest that it contributes to neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders. The new study work supports the findings that TRAP changes brain structure early in life, the researchers conclude.

The study was published in PLOS One.

Source: Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center

Air Pollution at Birth Can Change How Brain Develops

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). Air Pollution at Birth Can Change How Brain Develops. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Jan 2020 (Originally: 26 Jan 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 26 Jan 2020
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