Exposure to severe urban air pollution influences cognitive outcomes, brain volume and systemic inflammation in clinically healthy children
Exposure to severe air pollution produces neuroinflammation and structural brain alterations in children. We tested whether patterns of brain growth, cognitive deficits and white matter hyperintensities (WMH) are associated with exposures to severe air pollution. Baseline and 1year follow-up measurements of global and regional brain MRI volumes, cognitive abilities (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children-Revised, WISC-R), and serum inflammatory mediators were collected in 20 Mexico City (MC) children (10 with white matter hyperintensities, WMH(+), and 10 without, WMH(-)) and 10 matched controls (CTL) from a low polluted city. There were significant differences in white matter volumes between CTL and MC children – both WMH(+) and WMH(-) – in right parietal and bilateral temporal areas. Both WMH(-) and WMH(+) MC children showed progressive deficits, compared to CTL children, on the WISC-R Vocabulary and Digit Span subtests. The cognitive deficits in highly exposed children match the localization of the volumetric differences detected over the 1year follow-up, since the deficits observed are consistent with impairment of parietal and temporal lobe functions. Regardless of the presence of prefrontal WMH, Mexico City children performed more poorly across a variety of cognitive tests, compared to CTL children, thus WMH(+) is likely only partially identifying underlying white matter pathology. Together these findings reveal that exposure to air pollution may perturb the trajectory of cerebral development and result in cognitive deficits during childhood.
(This research paper is relevant to the children living near coal mines in the Hunter Valley – where the PM2.5’s affect their brain development.)