Impact of urban environmental exposures on cognitive performance and brain structure of healthy individuals at risk for Alzheimer's dementia

Environ Int. 2020 May:138:105546. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2020.105546. Epub 2020 Mar 6.


Background: Air quality might contribute to incidence of dementia-related disorders, including Alzheimer's dementia (AD). The aim of our study is to evaluate the effect of urban environmental exposures (including exposure to air pollution, noise and green space) on cognitive performance and brain structure of cognitively unimpaired individuals at risk for AD.

Participants and methods: The ALFA (ALzheimer and FAmilies) study is a prospective cohort of middle-age, cognitively unimpaired subjects, many of them offspring of AD patients. Cognitive performance was measured by the administration of episodic memory and executive function tests (N = 958). Structural brain imaging was performed in a subsample of participants to obtain morphological information of brain areas, specially focused on cortical thickness, known to be affected by AD (N = 228). Land Use Regression models were used to estimate residential exposure to air pollutants. The daily average noise level at the street nearest to each participant's residential address was obtained from noise maps. For each participant residential green exposure indicators, such as surrounding greenness or amount of green, were generated. General linear models were conducted to assess the association between environmental exposures, cognitive performance and brain structure in a cross-sectional analysis.

Results: No significant associations were observed between urban environmental exposures and the cognitive composite (p > 0.1). Higher exposure to air pollutants, but not noise, was associated with lower cortical thickness in brain regions known to be affected by AD, especially NO2 (β = -16.4; p = 0.05) and PM10 (β = -5.34; p = 0.05). On the other hand, increasing greenness indicators was associated with greater thickness in these same areas (β = 0.08; p = 0.03).

Conclusion: In cognitively unimpaired adults with increased risk for AD, increased exposure to air pollution was suggested to be associated with greater global atrophy and reduced volume and thickness in specific brain areas known to be affected in AD, thus suggesting a potential link between environmental exposures and cerebral vulnerability to AD. Although more research in the field is needed, air pollution reduction is crucial for decreasing the burden of age-related disorders.

Keywords: Air pollution; Alzheimer’s dementia; Brain structure; Cognitive performance; Green space; Noise; Prevention; Regions of interest; Risk factors; Urban environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Air Pollutants* / adverse effects
  • Air Pollutants* / analysis
  • Air Pollution* / adverse effects
  • Air Pollution* / analysis
  • Alzheimer Disease*
  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Cognition
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects
  • Environmental Exposure / analysis
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies


  • Air Pollutants