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A study from the Keck School of Medicine USC suggests that residing in areas with high air pollution levels can negatively affect teenagers’ brain development. Funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the research highlights the potential risks associated with everyday exposure to pollution, particularly for families with children or those planning to have children.

Exposure to pollutants correlates with changes in brain connectivity

In a comprehensive analysis of brain scan data from over 9,000 participants in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) study, researchers discovered that exposure to specific pollutants correlates with alterations in brain connectivity. This leads to both excessive and insufficient connections among different brain regions.

Devyn L. Cotter, a doctoral candidate, emphasizes the potential harm of deviations from normal brain development trajectories, whether due to excessive or insufficient connectivity in brain networks.

The research utilized functional MRI scans from children aged 9-10, with follow-up scans after two years to track changes in brain connectivity. It focused on various brain networks and regions, including the salience, default-mode networks, frontoparietal, and emotion-related areas like the hippocampus and amygdala, involved in learning and memory.

Even EPA-compliant air can affect brain development

Researchers analyzed air quality data, focusing on PM2.5, NO2, and O3 levels at children’s homes, and found correlations with changes in brain connectivity. PM2.5 exposure increased connectivity, while NO2 exposure decreased it. O3 was associated with increased cortical connections but reduced connections with other brain regions.

 According to Megan M. Herting, PhD, from the Keck School of Medicine, this suggests that even EPA-compliant air quality levels in the US could impact brain development, potentially indicating future cognitive and emotional issues.

The research findings suggest potential implications for air quality regulations, urging policymakers to factor in the impact of air pollution on brain health. It emphasizes the necessity of investigating pollutant composition to enhance regulations and comprehend how air pollution affects the brain.

Researchers intend to analyze brain health longitudinally using ABCD study data and delve into the enduring effects of air pollution on adolescent mental health.