In two new studies, researchers found how fine particle pollution—the tiny, inhalable pollutants from cars and power plants—impacts our brains.
The first study found that these fine particles—known as PM2.5—may alter the size of a child’s developing brain, which may ultimately increase the risk for cognitive and emotional problems later in adolescence.
The second study found that omega-3 fatty acids from consuming fish may protect against PM 2.5-associated brain shrinkage in older women.
The research was conducted by a team at the University of Southern California.
USC, located in what the American Lung Association frequently cites as the most polluted city in the nation, is home to a robust air pollution research program.
Findings from its studies have led to changes in state and federal guidelines to improve air quality standards.
One of its cornerstones is the USC Children’s Health Study, one of the largest and most detailed studies of the long-term effects of air pollution.
In the first study, the team used MRI scans from nearly 11,000 children aged nine and 10 from 21 cities across the United States and matched each scan with yearly pollution data for each child’s residence.
This is the first study of its kind to show that, even at relatively low levels, current PM2.5 exposure may be an important environmental factor that influences patterns of brain development in American children.
When they compared highly exposed kids with those who had less exposure to PM2.5, they saw differences.
For example, areas linked to emotion were larger in highly exposed kids, while other areas associated with cognitive functioning were smaller.
The team plans to follow the progress of the children, who are part of the ABCD Study, the largest long-term study of brain health and child development in the United States.
In the second study, researchers looked at the brain MRIs of 1,315 women aged 65 to 80 and blood test results to determine levels of healthy omega-3 fatty acids in their blood.
They found that women with higher blood levels of omega-3s had larger volumes of white matter in their brains.
Women living in locations with higher PM2.5 tended to have smaller white matter in their brains, but such damage that may be caused by PM2.5 was greatly reduced in women with high blood levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
The brain’s white matter, in contrast to gray matter, makes up most of the volume of the brain.
It is the vast, intertwining system of neural connections that unites different regions of the brain that perform various mental operations. White matter loss may be an early marker of Alzheimer’s disease.
One author of the study is Megan Herting, an assistant professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
The study findings are published in Environment International and Neurology.
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