Background: Proponents of the biophilia hypothesis believe that contact with nature, including green spaces, has a crucial role in brain development in children. Currently, however, we are not aware of evidence linking such exposure with potential effects on brain structure.
Objective: We determined whether lifelong exposure to residential surrounding greenness is associated with regional differences in brain volume based on 3-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging (3D MRI) among children attending primary school.
Methods: We performed a series of analyses using data from a subcohort of 253 Barcelona schoolchildren from the Brain Development and Air Pollution Ultrafine Particles in School Children (BREATHE) project. We averaged satellite-based normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) across 100-m buffers around all residential addresses since birth to estimate each participant's lifelong exposure to residential surrounding greenness, and we used high-resolution 3D MRIs of brain anatomy to identify regional differences in voxel-wise brain volume associated with greenness exposure. In addition, we performed a supporting substudy to identify regional differences in brain volume associated with measures of working memory (d' from computerized n-back tests) and inattentiveness (hit reaction time standard error from the Attentional Network Task instrument) that were repeated four times over one year. We also performed a second supporting substudy to determine whether peak voxel tissue volumes in brain regions associated with residential greenness predicted cognitive function test scores.
Results: Lifelong exposure to greenness was positively associated with gray matter volume in the left and right prefrontal cortex and in the left premotor cortex and with white matter volume in the right prefrontal region, in the left premotor region, and in both cerebellar hemispheres. Some of these regions partly overlapped with regions associated with cognitive test scores (prefrontal cortex and cerebellar and premotor white matter), and peak volumes in these regions predicted better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.
Conclusion: Our findings from a study population of urban schoolchildren in Barcelona require confirmation, but they suggest that being raised in greener neighborhoods may have beneficial effects on brain development and cognitive function. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP1876.