Air pollution causes brain damage by increasing risk of depression and autism in children, new study shows

Published by
Peter Kavinsky

Air pollution damages children’s brains, increasing their risk of depression, stress and autism, new research suggests.

One study found that those who grew up on busy roads had abnormal white matter — a vast network of fibers that connect neurons. The greater the exposure, particularly in utero and before the age of five, the greater the effect.

First author Anne-Claire Binter said: “One of the important findings is that the baby’s brain is particularly susceptible to the effects of air pollution not only during pregnancy, as has been shown in previous studies, but also during childhood.” .

The findings are based on 3,515 children in Rotterdam aged between 9 and 12 years. Those exposed to significant amounts of traffic-related chemicals fared worse.

In the first analysis of its kind, they were followed monthly from conception to eight and a half years of age.

The scans showed structural changes in tracts or bundles of brain white matter that link different areas of the brain.

These have been linked to psychiatric problems including depressive symptoms, anxiety and autism spectrum disorders.

There was also a specific link between tiny particles of soot and dust, known as PM2.5s, and a larger ‘putamen’, especially in the first two years of life.

Located in front of the head, it is involved in motor function and learning processes, along with many other functions.

Binter said: “A larger putamen has been linked to certain psychiatric disorders – schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorders and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders.”

Daily levels of PM2.5s and nitrogen dioxide (NO2), also released by vehicle exhausts, were estimated at each individual’s home. Later, they underwent magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Binter, from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), said: “The new aspect of the present study is to identify periods of susceptibility to air pollution.

“We measured exposure using a more accurate time scale, looking at the data month by month, unlike in previous studies where the data was analyzed for trimesters of pregnancy or childhood years.

“In this study, we analyzed children’s exposure to air pollution on a monthly basis from conception to age 8.5 years.”

The registered NO2 and PM2.5s exceeded the annual limits specified in the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines – 10 micrograms per cubic meter of air (10 µg/m3) and 5 µg/m3, respectively.

But they met European Union standards, suggesting that brain development could be harmed by exposure to air pollution at levels below current limits. Co-author Monica Guxens, also from ISGlobal, said: “We should follow up and continue to measure the same parameters in this cohort to investigate the possible long-term effects on the brain of exposure to air pollution.”

The study is in Environmental Pollution. Two years ago, scientists in the US discovered that 12-year-olds who grew up on busy roads had less gray matter.

They also had a thinner cortex – the region important for reasoning. Similar structural changes are seen in middle-aged people.

Participants exposed to significant amounts of air pollution in early childhood had about four percent fewer neurons in some areas of the brain.

Another study of 20,000 people aged 10+ in China found that those who had suffered chronic exposure fared worse on math and verbal tests.

Research has also shown that air pollution increases the risk of neurodegenerative diseases, including dementia.

More than nine out of ten people worldwide live in places where air quality exceeds the limits of WHO guidelines. More than 80% of the world’s urban population breathes unsafe levels of air pollution.

It has been linked to a number of potentially fatal conditions, including cardiovascular disease and lung cancer.

Described as an invisible killer, air pollution causes around seven million premature deaths a year worldwide, according to the WHO.

Peter Kavinsky

Peter Kavinsky is the Executive Editor at

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