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Being Stuck In Traffic Or Living Near A Road Can Damage The Brain

Just two hours of diesel exhaust exposure can result in a decrease in the brain's functional connections

Being stuck in a traffic jam or living near a main road can damage the brain, reveals a new study.

Breathing in diesel exhausts for just two hours can cause a drop in the brain’s functional connectivity, say scientists. It is possible these pollutants could impair people’s ability to think, and work and cause symptoms of depression.

Traffic on the West Fourth Ring Road in Beijing, China, February 1, 2023. Just after the Spring Festival, traffic on Beijing’s ring road which has experienced the peak of the epidemic. PHOTO BY CFTO/FUTURE PUBLISHING/GETTY IMAGES

Luckily, the changes in the brain were temporary and participants’ connectivity returned back to normal after they were exposed. However, the researchers have speculated that the effects could be long-lasting where 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. They then measured brain activity before and after each exposure using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

The researchers analyzed changes in the brain’s default mode network (DMN). This is a set of inter-connected brain regions that play an important role in memory and internal thought.

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

Study first author Professor Jodie Gawryluk, of the University of Victoria, 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.”

IN FILE – Vehicle stuck in a heavy traffic jam on NH 48 ahead of Diwali near Sirhaul Toll Plaza on October 21, 2022 in Gurugram, India. Brain functionality can be severely damaged with traffic jams. PHOTO BY CFOTO/GETTY IMAGES

The team suggests 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 they only looked into the effects of traffic pollutants, Dr. Carlsten said that other products of combustion are likely a concern.

Dr. Carlsten said: “Air pollution is now recognized as the largest environmental threat to human health and we are increasingly seeing the impacts across all major organ systems.

“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.”

The study was published in the journal Environmental Health.


Produced in association with SWNS Talker.

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