15.10.2019 change 15.10.2019
Ewelina Krajczyńska
Ewelina Krajczyńska

Smog Affects Child Brain Development; Researchers to Check How

Photo: Fotolia Photo: Fotolia

Smog affects the developing child brain. Polish scientists from the NeuroSmog consortium will examine several hundred children from three provinces to see how this process works and how it affects intelligence quotient, dyslexia, dyscalculia and ADHD.

Until recently, it was thought that smog (a mixture of airborne dust particles with toxic substances deposited on them, including heavy metals and dioxins) adversely affects mainly the respiratory tract. Today we know that toxic particles entering the body from air can cause inflammation and damage to almost all tissues and organs. It has also been known for over a decade that smog reduces fertility, pregnant women breathing polluted air are exposed to miscarriages and give birth to children with lower body weight, probably more prone to neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD.

Scientists from the Institute of Psychology and the Institute of Applied Psychology of the Jagiellonian University and the Institute of Environmental Protection in Warsaw will examine 800 children aged 10-13 years to confirm the participation of smog in the formation of behavioural disorders and better understand the mechanisms behind this phenomenon. They want to find out which particular nerve pathways or which parts of the developing brain are damaged by air pollution, the Foundation for Polish Science informs.

The scientists received over PLN 15 million for their research from the foundation's TEAM-NET programme. The first results should be available in about 4 years.

"The child's brain matures, and during maturation, the connections between individual parts of the brain must become strong, orderly. Smog interferes with this process, because dust particles that enter the brain create a chronic inflammation. We are looking for a mechanism, by which smog adversely affects the brains our children," says project leader Dr. Marcin Szwed, a professor at the Institute of Psychology of the Jagiellonian University.

Researchers believe that the project will allow to obtain reliable data on how smog in the concentrations we encounter every day in Poland affects children's brains. "If the effects of smog are indeed as sinister as we expect, we hope that our discoveries will inspire the regulators responsible for air quality in Poland and Europe," adds Dr. Szwed.

Researchers will primarily examine children with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) - a disorder, whose symptoms are quite clearly described. Dr. Szwed explains that it is also well known how various processes take place in the brains of children with ADHD. In addition to this disorder, scientists will also investigate how smog affects the IQ, dyslexia and dyscalculia that accompany ADHD.

The study will include children with a preliminary diagnosis of ADHD and other behavioural disorders, as well as children who do not have them. The email address, at which families can apply to participate in the study, is available on the project website.

"Dozens of factors affect the brain. To separate the impact of smog from other factors, you need to design the study very carefully, choose the places where we are looking for children, select statistical methods. We need to examine as many children from small towns as from large cities. In Poland, unfortunately, these places are equally affected by smog. We should also take into account the same number of children with parents with higher education as with basic education," says Dr. Szwed.

He admits that Małopolska is already so poisoned with smog that information from less polluted places is necessary to scientifically infer something based on the local data. Therefore, in addition to Małopolska, research will also be conducted in the Świętokrzyskie and Podkarpackie regions.

Four research teams will operate in the consortium: air pollution modelling team, child psychology team, neuroimaging team and epidemiological team. They will combine research methods from various scientific disciplines.

"Both children with diagnosed ADHD and children without overt neuropsychological problems will be examined. In addition to brain imaging, all participants will undergo detailed psychological tests so that their psychological assessment is as reliable as possible," emphasises Dr. Marcin Szwed.

Specialists from the Institute of Environmental Protection in Warsaw will develop accurate air pollution maps, in which the data can be "moved back in time" to show the situation from several years ago. "The maps contain data on weather, terrain, car traffic, temperature. All this to determine the dose of smog, to which the child was exposed before it was born, the dose it receives every day at school or at home," the researcher describes.

The researcher points out that previous studies on this topic, carried out in Rotterdam and Barcelona, were mainly based on surveys and quite superficial. The study carried out at the Jagiellonian University will take into account much higher Polish concentrations of smog. Children will be examined with the whole range of available psychological tests and with magnetic resonance imaging.

PAP - Science in Poland, Ewelina Krajczyńska

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