Pollution during pregnancy and first years of life changes the brain

ISGlobal leads a study that shows that exposure to air pollutants from conception to 8.5 years of life can cause changes in brain structures.

Air pollution can have an impact on brain development even at levels below current air quality standards. Photo: Ana Paula Grimaldi for Unsplash.

The Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) has led a study on air pollution that shows that brain structures can be modified by exposure to pollutants both during pregnancy and during the first years of life.

The study has considered, for the first time, a finer time scale: instead of studying trimesters of pregnancy or childhood years, monthly data have been collected from conception to 8 and a half years of age. In addition, it has relied on data from a large cohort: 3,515 children from the Generation R Study in Rotterdam (The Netherlands).

“The study is novel because it identifies periods of susceptibility to air pollution”
Anne-Claire, ISGlobal

Brain imaging of the participants made it possible to calculate the volume of various parts of the brain and the structural connectivity (the white matter that connects them). The results show, on one hand, that air pollution affects structural connectivity. On the other hand, exposure to PM2,5 particles can increase the volume of the putamen, a brain structure involved in motor function and learning. Previous studies have associated its volume increase with psychiatric disorders such as autism or schizophrenia, among others.

Anne-Claire Binter, researcher at ISGlobal, assures that one of the major conclusions of the study “is that the brain is particularly vulnerable to air pollution – even at levels below current air quality standards – and not only during pregnancy, as previous studies have pointed out, but also during childhood”.

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