Children are more vulnerable to the effects of environmental elements due to their active developmental processes. Exposure to urban air pollution has been associated with poorer cognitive performance, which is thought to be a result of direct interference with brain maturation. We aimed to assess the extent of such potential effects of urban pollution on child brain maturation using general indicators of vehicle exhaust measured in the school environment and a comprehensive imaging evaluation. A group of 263 children, aged 8 to 12 years, underwent MRI to quantify regional brain volumes, tissue composition, myelination, cortical thickness, neural tract architecture, membrane metabolites, functional connectivity in major neural networks and activation/deactivation dynamics during a sensory task. A combined measurement of elemental carbon and NO2 was used as a putative marker of vehicle exhaust. Air pollution exposure was associated with brain changes of a functional nature, with no evident effect on brain anatomy, structure or membrane metabolites. Specifically, a higher content of pollutants was associated with lower functional integration and segregation in key brain networks relevant to both inner mental processes (the default mode network) and stimulus-driven mental operations. Age and performance (motor response speed) both showed the opposite effect to that of pollution, thus indicating that higher exposure is associated with slower brain maturation. In conclusion, urban air pollution appears to adversely affect brain maturation in a critical age with changes specifically concerning the functional domain.
Keywords: Air pollution; Brain development; Functional MRI; Functional connectivity.
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