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Even 'safe' air pollution levels can alter kids' brain function, says study

Even safe air pollution levels can alter kids brain function, says study

New York: A recent study conducted in New York has found a concerning link between certain pollutants, even at levels considered safe, and alterations in the brain function of children.

These changes in brain function can potentially increase the risk of cognitive and emotional problems in the future, according to the study's findings.

The research, published in the journal Environment International, analyzed brain scan data from a sample of over 9,000 children aged 9 and 10. The results showed that children who were exposed to higher levels of pollutants exhibited noticeable changes in the connectivity between different regions of their brains.

Specifically, some areas showed an increase in the number of connections, while other areas showed a decrease compared to the expected norm.

"A deviation in any direction from a normal trajectory of brain development -- whether brain networks are too connected or not connected enough -- could be harmful down the line," said Devyn L. Cotter, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

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Communication between regions of the brain helps us navigate virtually every moment of our day, from the way we take in information about our surroundings to how we think and feel.

Many of those critical connections develop between the ages of 9 and 12 and can influence whether children experience normal or atypical cognitive and emotional development.

"Air quality across America, even though 'safe' by EPA standards, is contributing to changes in brain networks during this critical time, which may reflect an early biomarker for increased risk for cognitive and emotional problems later in life," said Megan M. Herting, Associate Professor of population and public health sciences at the Keck School.

In the study, the team analysed the salience, frontoparietal and default-mode brain networks, as well as the amygdala and hippocampus -- key regions of the brain known to be involved in emotion, learning, memory and other complex functions.

Next, the researchers used EPA and other data to map air quality at each child's residence, including levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and ground-level ozone (O3).

They then used advanced statistical tools to investigate whether young brains develop differently when they are exposed to more pollution.

The results showed that greater exposure to PM2.5 was linked to relative increases in functional connectivity between regions, while more exposure to NO2 predicted relative decreases in connectedness.

Exposure to higher levels of O3 was associated with greater connections within the brain's cortex, but fewer connections between the cortex and other regions, such as the amygdala and hippocampus.

The findings could prompt regulators to consider brain health, in addition to lung and cardiometabolic health, when they set or adjust recommendations for air quality.

With inputs from agencies

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TAGS:Air pollutionkids' brain
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