PhotoThe list of negative health effects associated with air pollution has been well-documented, and now researchers have discovered how the environment is affecting young people’s mental health.

According to a new study conducted by researchers from the University of Cincinnati Academic Health Center, traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) was found to increase children’s generalized anxiety symptoms.

“Recent evidence suggests the central nervous system is particularly vulnerable to air pollution, suggesting a role in the etiology of mental disorders, like anxiety and depression,” said researcher Dr. Kelly Brunst. “This is the first study to use neuroimaging to evaluate TRAP exposure, metabolite dysregulation in the brain, and generalized anxiety symptoms among otherwise healthy children.”

Environmental effects

To see how air pollution could affect children’s anxiety symptoms, the researchers used a special kind of MRI technique to analyze brain scans of 145 children, all around the age of 12. Following the MRI, the children were asked questions about their anxiety symptoms. Using the Spence Children’s Anxiety Scale, the researchers were able to gauge participants’ mental health.

In evaluating the scans, the researchers were most interested in the participants’ levels of myo-inositol, a metabolite that regulates hormones and insulin throughout the body; higher levels typically indicate inflammation throughout the body. The researchers then compared the MRI scans with the children’s reported anxiety symptoms and their recent exposure to TRAP to see if air pollution affected their mental health.

According to Brunst, the participants who had been recently exposed to TRAP had a “12 percent increase in anxiety symptoms,” compared to those who had lower levels of air pollution exposure.

Additionally, children with higher levels of myo-inositol were more likely to have reported generalized anxiety symptoms, while those who were recently exposed to air pollution were also more likely to have significantly higher levels of myo-inositol.

The researchers hope that these findings shed light on yet another way air pollution is affecting consumers.

“...I think it can speak to a bigger impact on population health...that increased exposure to air pollution can trigger the brain’s inflammatory response, as evident by the increases we saw in myo-inositol,” Brunst said. “This may indicate that certain populations are at an increased risk for poorer anxiety outcomes.”

Protecting children’s health

As children’s mental health diagnoses are increasing nationwide, it’s important to know the risks that could trigger some of these symptoms. Air pollution comes with its own set of physical health problems, such as an increased risk of asthma, and it can come from outdoor exposure or even from doing chores around the house.

Moreover, researchers have recently found that air pollution can also impact children in school -- and consumers’ intelligence at-large -- as emissions have affected students’ performance on both reading and math tests.

“High air pollution can potentially be associated with oxidative stress, neuroinflammation, and neurodegeneration of humans,” said Derrick Ho of Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute.

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