Published January 2020 | PLOS One

When newborns are exposed during their first year of life to high levels of traffic-related air pollution (TRAP), reductions in gray matter volume and cortical thickness could be detected at age 12, according to a study led by experts at Cincinnati Children’s.

“The results of this study, though exploratory, suggest that where you live and the air you breathe can affect how your brain develops,” says Travis Beckwith, PhD, lead author of the study. “While the percentage of loss is far less than what might be seen in a degenerative disease state, this loss may be enough to influence the development of various physical and mental processes.”

Beckwith and Kim Cecil, PhD, with the Cincinnati Children’s Imaging Research Center, led a research team that used magnetic resonance imaging to obtain anatomical brain images from 147 children at age 12 who were involved in the Cincinnati Childhood Allergy and Air Pollution Study (CCAAPS). This study had recruited volunteers prior to the age of six months to examine early childhood exposure to TRAP and health outcomes.

The team divided the group into low and high-exposure cohorts based of their place of residence and pollution data from 27 air sampling sites in the Cincinnati area. The study found that specific regions in the frontal and parietal lobes and the cerebellum were affected with decreases on the order of three to four percent. These areas are involved in motor control and sensory perception.

Previous studies of TRAP suggest that it contributes to neurodegenerative diseases and neurodevelopmental disorders. This work supports that TRAP changes brain structure early in life.

Brain Regions Adversely Affected by Air Pollution