Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Association between Early Life Exposure to Air Pollution and Working Memory and Attention

Academic journal article Environmental Health Perspectives

Association between Early Life Exposure to Air Pollution and Working Memory and Attention

Article excerpt


Air pollution is the main environmental contributor to the global burden of disease (GBD 2013 Risk Factor Collaborators 2015). Over the last few years, interest in investigating the associations between air pollution and cognitive function has increased (Suades-Gonzalez et al. 2015), both for children (Calderon-Garciduenas et al. 2012; Chiu et al. 2013; Sunyer et al. 2015) and adults (Ailshire and Crimmins 2014; Gatto et al. 2014).

Environmental exposures in utero and during early life may permanently modify the body's structure, physiology and metabolism (Gluckman and Hanson 2004). The structure and function of the brain as well as consequent lifelong developmental potential are established in the early years in a process that is extremely sensitive to external influence (Boucher et al. 2009; Luna et al. 2001). Both positive (e.g., responsive caregiving, early learning) and negative (e.g., nutritional deficiencies, air pollution; Black et al. 2016) environmental factors may determine whether children would be able to reach their full neurodevelopmental potential at adulthood.

Working memory and attention are essential for normal cognitive development. Working memory is a cognitive system that is responsible for temporarily holding information for its manipulation. Its function is crucial for many competencies of cognition, such as learning, reasoning, problem solving, and language comprehension (Vuontela et al. 2003). Most of the development of working memory occurs during childhood, though development of working memory continues until adulthood (Ostby et al. 2011; Ullman et al. 2014). Attention involves different processes, such as selectively attending to a particular source of stimulation or voluntarily controlling actions (Anderson 2002). Attention is a basic function required for superior cognitive abilities (e.g., executive functions or memory). The conflict network, also called executive control or executive attention, is one of the three functionally and anatomically differentiated networks that form attention (Posner and Petersen 1990). The conflict network is involved in high-level forms of attention, such as the detection and resolution of conflicts among various options and responses, error detection, response inhibition, as well as in the regulation of thoughts and feelings (Fan et al. 2005). Attention starts to develop early in infancy, and the conflict network presents a longer development period that extends into adolescence (Konrad et al. 2005; Ruedaet al. 2015,2005).

Studies that focused on exposures to air pollution, particularly particulate matter (PM) and N[O.sub.2], during the prenatal period and the first years of life found associations with reduced psychomotor development (Guxens et al. 2014; Kim et al. 2014), as well as with autism spectrum disorder (Kalkbrenner et al. 2015; Volk et al. 2013) and impairment in cognitive development (Calderon-Garciduenas et al. 2015; Chiu et al. 2016). However, for similar outcomes, other studies reported no associations (Guxens et al. 2014, 2016; Harris et al. 2015). Children from New York, New York City, showed structural brain alterations related to prenatal air pollution levels, whereas no significant correlation was observed for postnatal exposure at 5 years of age via measures of the cortical thickness or cerebral surface (Peterson et al. 2015). The evidence is still scarce, given the lack of studies focusing on the exposure during the most vulnerable stages of brain development (i.e., prenatal and first one or two postnatal years). Therefore, further research is required to assess how the exposure to traffic-related air pollutants at particular time windows affect brain development.

This study was conducted within the framework of the Brain Development and Air Pollution Ultrafine Particles in School Children (BREATHE) project. In previous publications, we reported a deceleration over a year in the development of working memory and reduced attentiveness among children attending schools with a high concentration of traffic-related air pollution in comparison with children in less-polluted schools (Basagana et al. …

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