Prenatal Pollution Exposure May be Linked to Cognitive Problems: MRI Study

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), found in large quantities in cities, are toxic particulates in the air caused by smoke, vehicle emissions, fossil fuels and other pollutants. Previous studies have linked exposure to PAHs to increased risk of suicide, and now a new study’s findings may link prenatal exposure to PAHs to slower cognitive processing and behavioral issues such as ADHD.

The study, entitled Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollutants (Polycyclic Aromatic Where there's smog, there's PAHsHydrocarbons) on the Development of Brain White Matter, Cognition and Behavior in Later Childhood), was published Wednesday in JAMA Psychiatry.

The researchers, a team from both Columbia University and the Institute for the Developing Mind at the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), used MRI to track the brain development of 40 children from in-utero scans done during their mothers’ pregnancies, up until ages 7-9. The researchers found a pronounced link in this small study in infants exposed to prenatal PAHs and later reductions in brain white matter.

Says Dr. Bradley Peterson, a doctor at CHLA and one of the study’s authors: “This is the largest MRI study to date of how early life exposure to air pollutants, specifically PAH, affect the developing mind. Our findings suggest that PAH are contributors to ADHD and other behavioral problems due to the pollutants’ disruptive effects on early brain development.”


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