‘Harmful effects’: Study shows pollution can damage your brain

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Previous research has linked traffic-related air pollution to a higher risk of dementia. The meta-analysis, published in the journal Neurology, found that the risk of the mind-robbing condition increased by three percent for every one microgram per cubic meter (µg/m3) of traffic pollution. Now, a new study adds to this evidence by highlighting the brain damage that can be stirred up by diesel fumes.

Nothing feels worse than being stuck in a traffic jam, advancing just a few metres at a time.

Worryingly, the traffic pollution emitted during this time could also damage your brain, according to a new study, published in the journal Environmental Health.

Furthermore, the research doesn’t offer good news for those living near main roads either, as the fumes can be just as damaging for these people.

The research team found that breathing in diesel exhausts for just two hours can cause a drop in the brain’s functional connectivity.

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Furthermore, it’s possible the pollutants could impair your ability to think, work and even trigger symptoms of depression.

Fortunately, the changes in the brain observed by the researchers seemed to be only temporary, with the participants’ connectivity being able to return back to normal after the exposure.

However, the team has speculated that the effects could be long-lasting when the exposure is continuous.

Study author Professor Chris Carlsten, of the University of British Columbia, Canada, said: “For many decades, scientists thought the brain may be protected from the harmful effects of air pollution.

“This study, which is the first of its kind in the world, provides fresh evidence supporting a connection between air pollution and cognition.”

The researchers briefly exposed 25 healthy adults to diesel exhausts and filtered air at different times in a laboratory.

The team also measured brain activity before and after each exposure, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

They then analysed changes in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which describes a set of inter-connected brain regions that play an important role in your memory and internal thought.

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The fMRI revealed that the exhausts decreased functional connectivity in widespread regions of the DMN, compared to filtered air.

Study first author Professor Jodie Gawryluk said: “We know that altered functional connectivity in the DMN has been associated with reduced cognitive performance and symptoms of depression, so it’s concerning to see traffic pollution interrupting these same networks.

“While more research is needed to fully understand the functional impacts of these changes, it’s possible that they may impair people’s thinking or ability to work.”

Furthermore, the team suggested that people should be mindful of the air they’re breathing.

Dr Carlsten said: “People may want to think twice the next time they’re stuck in traffic with the windows rolled down.

“It’s important to ensure that your car’s air filter is in good working order, and if you’re walking or biking down a busy street, consider diverting to a less busy route.”

While the research team only looked at the effects of traffic pollutants, Dr Carlsten said that other products of combustion are likely to be a concern as well.

He added: “I expect we would see similar impacts on the brain from exposure to other air pollutants, like forest fire smoke.

“With the increasing incidence of neurocognitive disorders, it’s an important consideration for public health officials and policymakers.”

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