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orange sky with industrial landscape amidst smog

Air pollution affects the brain's corpus callosum

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Scientists found a link between mothers’ exposure to air pollution and changes in babies’ brains. To make the connection, the researchers gathered information about children’s brain structures using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and behavioral health questionnaires. Then, they looked at air pollution levels at the time their mothers would have been pregnant.

Air Pollution During Pregnancy May Cause Autism and ADHD

pregnancy vs air pollution

They found that the corpus callosum, the part of the brain that allows the left and right brain to communicate, had a lower volume in children whose mothers were exposed to high levels of air pollution during pregnancy. 

What does the corpus callosum do?

Your brain function depends heavily on communication between the left and right hemispheres, so a strong corpus callosum is important for countless functions. People with an impaired corpus callosum may experience things like: 

  • Vision trouble
  • Sleep problems
  • Seizures
  • Hearing and sensory problems
  • Language trouble
  • Difficulty understanding verbal and nonverbal communication
  • Poor coordination
  • Difficulty with social cues

corpus callosum, brain

The results of the study are alarming for several reasons. First, a smaller corpus callosum is a characteristic of conditions such as autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Conditions like these have been thought to be largely out of parents’ control and mostly genetic. This new information shows that expecting parents can make an effort to avoid exposure to air pollution -- just like they avoid certain medications, paint fumes, and cigarette smoke -- to help their babies develop properly. 

Other problems with air pollution

Breathing highly polluted air can cause health problems even if you’re not an expectant mother or a developing child. Other effects of air pollution include:

  • Reduced lung capacity and function
  • Allergies
  • Emphysema
  • Respiratory cancers
  • Impaired heart function
  • Heart disease
  • Mood disorders
  • Sleep disorders
  • Liver cell damage

The list goes on. Breathing dirty air over long periods can also contribute to higher levels of oxidative stress, which can contribute to atherosclerosis, heart attacks, stoke, chronic inflammatory diseases, accelerated aging and more.

What if you live in an area with high levels of air pollution?

man running with smoke stacks in background

It’s true that air pollution is largely out of your control. You may be exposed to fumes during rush hour traffic twice a day for work, or you may live near an industrial area. You may live in a dry, windy area that circulates a lot of dust and allergens into the air. 

With all of the wildfires popping up in the west, public health experts have shown concern about air quality in the affected areas and the surrounding towns. Large wildfires can increase air pollution over thousands of square miles, and wildfires do cause short-term but significant increases in airborne particles and gaseous air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and acetaldehyde.

That doesn’t mean your baby will have developmental problems. Plenty of children will develop perfectly normally. An increased likelihood simply means that if other contributing factors are present, like genetics or other vulnerabilities, air pollution may impact brain growth. 

You have control over the air you breathe

When a baby develops, you want his or her brain to grow to its maximum potential.   

boy sleeping soundly

If you live in a polluted area, or if towns near you are experiencing wildfires, the best thing to do would be to run a high-quality air purifier in your bedroom while you sleep. You sleep close to ⅓ of your life, so if you run a purifier even just when you sleep, you’re substantially reducing your exposure to damaging particles in the air. You might think of sleep as a time when you’re completely inactive, but at the cell level, the opposite is true. While you sleep, your body is cleaning house, on top of doing repairs and maintenance.

If your air quality is exceptionally poor for a time, like it would be if there were wildfires nearby, you may consider finding a place to stay until the air clears. It may make a huge difference, especially for the very young, the very old, people who have chronic conditions already, or expectant mothers.