Commuting to work in heavy traffic can cause brain damage, study claims

Photo (c) Jung - Getty Images

Researchers may have handed remote workers an excuse not to return to the office

Working remotely eliminates the daily commute to the office, and for those whose route took them through heavy traffic, there might be a health benefit from working at home. Canadian researchers have published a study showing that common levels of traffic pollution can impair human brain function in only a matter of hours.

The peer-reviewed findings, published in the journal Environmental Health, found that the damage can occur in as little as two hours when drivers are exposed to heavy diesel fumes in heavy stop-and-go traffic.

The researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the University of Victoria say their study is the first to show altered brain network connectivity induced by air pollution.

“For many decades, scientists thought the brain may be protected from the harmful effects of air pollution,” said senior study author Dr. Chris Carlsten, professor and head of respiratory medicine and the Canada Research Chair in occupational and environmental lung disease at UBC. “This study, which is the first of its kind in the world, provides fresh evidence supporting a connection between air pollution and cognition.”

Study details

The researchers briefly exposed 25 healthy adults to diesel exhaust and filtered air at different times in a laboratory setting. Brain activity was measured before and after each exposure using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Next, the scientists measured changes in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), a set of inter-connected brain regions that play an important role in memory and internal thought. The results showed that participants had reduced functional connectivity in several regions of the DMN after exposure to diesel exhaust, compared to filtered air.

The findings may take on added significance as more employers require employees to return to the office, a move that could contribute to heavier traffic during morning and afternoon commuting times. The researchers say there are steps commuters can take to reduce their risk.

“People may want to think twice the next time they’re stuck in traffic with the windows rolled down,” Carlsten said. “It’s important to ensure that your car’s air filter is in good working order, and if you’re walking or biking down a busy street, consider diverting to a less busy route.”

Get a health screening near you

Get Peace of Mind or Early Detection with Life Line Screening

Get started