A growing baby’s exposure to so-called ‘safe’ levels of air pollution is linked to brain abnormalities that may impair cognitive function

This is according to a new study performed in the Netherlands.

“We observed brain development effects in relationship to fine particle levels below the current EU limit,” says lead author Dr Mònica Guxens, of Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and Erasmus University Medical Center, “Therefore, we cannot warrant the safety of the current levels of air pollution in our cities.”

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

These brain abnormalities contribute in part 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 (ADHD).

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Related: Air pollution linked to childhood autism

Over 700 children studied

The foetal brain is particularly vulnerable during pregnancy – it hasn’t yet developed the mechanisms to protect against or remove environmental toxins

The study enrolled pregnant women and followed a total of 783 children from foetal life.

Researchers assessed air pollution levels at home using air pollution monitoring campaigns. They included levels of nitrogen dioxide (a prominent air pollutant caused by traffic and cigarette smoking), coarse particles, and fine particles.

Brain imaging performed when the children were between six and 10 years old revealed abnormalities in the thickness of the brain cortex of the precuneus and rostral middle frontal region.

Despite the relationship between these brain structure alterations and fine particle exposure, the average residential levels of fine particles in the study were well below the current acceptable limit set by the EU.

The average residential levels of nitrogen dioxide were right at the safe limit.

Related: Traffic air pollution puts unborn babies’ health at risk

Air pollution and the developing brain

“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,” says Dr John Krystal, editor of Biological Psychiatry.

The foetal brain is particularly vulnerable during pregnancy – it hasn’t yet developed the mechanisms to protect against or remove environmental toxins.

The findings of the study suggest that exposure to levels even below those considered safe could cause permanent brain damage.

Source: Elsevier via www.sciencedaily.com

Related: How to cut in-car air pollution

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