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Your Environment. Your Health.

MRI Reveals how Early Life Air Pollution Exposure Affects the Brain

Rachel Miller, M.D.; Frederica Perera, Dr.P.H., Ph.D.
Columbia University Health Sciences
NIEHS Grants P01ES009600, P50ES015905, R01ES008977

NIEHS grantees report one the largest MRI studies to date of how prenatal and postnatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) air pollutants disturbs the developing brain. If confirmed, the findings have important public health implications because PAHs are ubiquitous in the environment.

The researchers used MRI to study the brains of 40 children from minority communities in New York City that had been followed from before birth until 7 to 9 years of age. The researchers previously reported that prenatal exposure to airborne PAH during gestation in this cohort was associated with multiple neurodevelopmental problems, including development delay by age 3, reduced verbal IQ at age 5, and symptoms of anxiety and depression at age 7.

The new study showed a dose-response relationship between increased prenatal PAH exposure and later childhood reductions in the white matter surface of the left hemisphere of the brain, which is associated with slower processing of information and externalizing behavioral problems that include ADHD and aggression. For postnatal PAH exposure measured at age 5, the researchers found additional disturbances in development of white matter in the dorsal prefrontal region of the brain, which is associated with concentration, reasoning, judgment, and problem-solving ability. The postnatal affects were spatially distinct from and statistically independent from those for prenatal PAH exposure. The researchers are currently undertaking a much larger study to confirm and extend their findings.

Citation: Peterson BS, Rauh VA, Bansal R, Hao X, Toth Z, Nati G, Walsh K, Miller RL, Semanek D, Perera F. 2015. Effects of prenatal exposure to air pollutants (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) on the development of brain white matter, cognition, and behavior in later childhood. JAMA Psychiatry; doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2015.57 [Online 25 March 2015].

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