Brain Function Is Impacted by Traffic Pollution

We use cars as transportation to get to our jobs, schools, run errands, and more. Living in a traffic-filled world, we are constantly exposed to pollution. The University of British Columbia and University of Victoria led a study that showed how traffic pollution can really impact our brain functions after merely a couple of hours.

What did the study find?

The study, published by Environmental Health, revealed that even a two-hour exposure to pollution, or diesel exhaust, can diminish our brain’s ability to function.

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"For many decades, scientists thought the brain may be protected from the harmful effects of air pollution," said senior study author Dr. Chris Carlsten. "This study, which is the first of its kind in the world, provides fresh evidence supporting a connection between air pollution and cognition."

The study involved 25 physically healthy participants and then momentarily presented them to diesel exhaust and filtered air in a lab at various times. Researchers calculated brain activity prior to the exposure and also after, utilizing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The research was done at UBC’s Air Pollution Exposure Laboratory that has state-of-the-art exposure booth which imitates a real polluted area. The diesel exhaust used in the study was freshly-made exhaust which was diluted and aged. By observing the changes in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), researchers found that participants had a decreased functional connectivity in many areas of the DMN following their exposure to diesel exhaust, unlike filtered air.

"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," said psychology professor at the University of Victoria and the study’s first author Dr. Jodie Gawryluk.

"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."

What can we do for protection?

Living in today's world, it is impossible to stay completely away from pollution. However, we can definitely take steps to minimize impacts of diesel exhaust. Fortunately, the brain’s connectivity went back to normal after time passed. However, Dr. Carlsten noted that impacts could be more permanent if exposed for a longer period of time. He recommends that individuals stay conscious and try to decrease exposure to pollution.

The study also recommend not rolling the windows down when driving, especially in traffic. It is also crucial that your car’s air filter is constantly checked to see if they’re properly working. If you’re taking a walk or riding bikes in a car-crowded area, it may be helpful to find a less populated route to avoid pollution.

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Although this research focused mainly on cognitive functions, there are also other physical symptoms that need to be studied.

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