The Relationship Between Air Pollution and Cognitive Functions in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review

Cogn Behav Neurol. 2020 Sep;33(3):157-178. doi: 10.1097/WNN.0000000000000235.


Air pollution has a negative impact on one's health and on the central nervous system. We decided to assess studies that evaluated the relationship between air pollution and cognitive functions in children and adolescents by reviewing studies that had been published between January 2009 and May 2019. We searched three major databases for original works (26 studies) and for studies using brain imaging methods based on MRI (six studies). Adverse effects of air pollutants on selected cognitive or psychomotor functions were found in all of the studies. Exposure to nitrogen dioxide, for example, was linked to impaired working memory, general cognitive functions, and psychomotor functions; particulate matter 2.5 was linked to difficulties in working memory, short-term memory, attention, processing speed, and fine motor function; black carbon was linked to poor verbal intelligence, nonverbal intelligence, and working memory; airborne copper was linked to impaired attentiveness and fine motor skills; isophorone was linked to lower mathematical skills; and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in fetal life were linked to lower intelligence scores. The studies using MRI showed that high concentrations of air pollutants were linked to changes in the brain's white matter or lower functional integration and segregation in children's brain networks. In view of the global increase in air pollution, there is a need for further research to elucidate the relationship between air pollution and cognitive and motor development in children. According to some studies, neuroinflammation, the e4 allele of the apolipoprotein E gene, and gutathione-S-transferase gene polymorphism processes may play a role.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution / adverse effects*
  • Child
  • Cognitive Dysfunction / etiology*
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Particulate Matter / analysis
  • Particulate Matter / pharmacology


  • Particulate Matter