A new study has found that air pollution can change the structure of the brain in children whilst in the womb and during the first 8.5 years of their life.

The research has also shown that even when air pollution levels are lower than the current EU limits, it can still affect brain development.

Changes to the white matter in the brain have been linked to psychiatric disorders including anxiety and autism. Researchers also revealed a link between exposure to fine particulate matter and the part of the brain involved with motor function and learning processes.

Changes to this part of the brain’s structure have been linked to psychiatric disorders including schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders.

First author Anne-Claire Binter, a researcher from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, said: “One of the important conclusions of this study is that the infant’s brain is particularly susceptible to the effects of air pollution not only during pregnancy, as has been shown in earlier studies, but also during childhood.

“The novel aspect of the present study is that it identified periods of susceptibility to air pollution. We measured exposure using a finer time scale by analysing the data on a month-by-month basis, unlike previous studies in which data was analysed for trimesters of pregnancy or childhood years. In this study, we analysed the children’s exposure to air pollution from conception to 8.5 years of age on a monthly basis.”

The study, which looked at the data of more than 3,500 children in Holland, revealed that the greater the exposure to air pollution before the age of 5, the greater the alterations to brain structure in preadolescent children.

The daily levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter in homes were estimated by researchers during the mother’s pregnancy and until the child reached the age of eight-and-a-half. Brain scans were then carried out on the children when they were aged between nine and 12, to assess the structural connectivity and brain structure.

The full study can be found in the journal Environmental Pollution.

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