CU Boulder study shows infant’s brain development linked to prenatal pollution exposure

A new University of Colorado Boulder study shows that infants scored lower on measures of cognition, motor coordination and language skills if their moms were exposed to higher levels of air pollution during mid-to-late pregnancies.

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Health, is one of the first to find the link between prenatal pollution exposure and brain development in infancy, according to a news release.

“Our findings suggest that pollution exposure, particularly during mid-to-late pregnancy, may negatively impact neurodevelopment in early life,” said senior author of the research study, Tanya Alderete.

Researchers followed 161 “healthy”, Latino mother-infant pairs from southern California who enrolled in the Mother’s Milk Study, according to the release. “Mothers provided histories of where they had lived, and researchers used data from the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality System to calculate their exposure to pollutants from roadside traffic, industry, wildfire smoke and other sources during pregnancy,” the release read.

When the infants turned 2, their cognitive, motor and language skills were tested.

The study found that 2-year-olds who were prenatally exposed to more “inhalable particulate matter” scored lower on the cognitive tests. This is after researchers took factors like socioeconomic status, breastfeeding frequency, the mother and baby’s weight and other factors into account.

“About 16% of participants had a composite cognitive score that indicated impairment. If all participants had been exposed to as much pollution as the 75th percentile, the prevalence of cognitive impairment at age 2 would be 22%, the researchers predict,” according to the release.

According to Zach Morgan, the first-author of the study, exposure in mid-to-late pregnancy was proved to be detrimental.

“The brain develops differently at different stages of pregnancy, and when you have a disruption at a critical window, that can affect the trajectory of that development.”

According to the release, prior research has suggested that inhaling pollutants can cause systemic inflammation and oxidative stress that can impact neurodevelopment. Additionally, other research has also found links between prenatal exposure to pollution and lower IQ scores.

On Sep. 16 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Denver and Northern Front Range of Colorado had been reclassified as “severe” violators of federal air quality standards.

90% of the world’s population is exposed to particulate matter which exceeds the recommended levels, according to Alderete.

“Our findings highlight the importance of addressing the impact of pollution on disadvantaged communities and point to additional steps all families can take to protect their health.”

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