Sitting in traffic for two hours a day can raise risk of brain damage

Sadiq Khan addresses London's air pollution issue

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Getting stuck in traffic, especially on the daily commute, can be extremely frustrating. It can make us late and feel like a massive waste of time. But, according to research, it could also be having a negative effect on our health.

A new study, published in Environmental Health journal, revealed that breathing in diesel exhaust fumes while sitting in traffic could impair brain function.

Brain scans, conducted by a team from the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria, found signs of decreased brain function can start to appear in as little as two hours of diesel fume exposure.

Senior study author Doctor Chris Carlsten explained why this was significant.

In a university release he said: “For many decades, scientists thought the brain may be protected from the harmful effects of air pollution.

“This study, which is the first of its kind in the world, provides fresh evidence supporting a connection between air pollution and cognition.”

As part of the study, 25 healthy adults- were briefly exposed to diesel exhaust and filtered air at different times in a laboratory setting.

Their brain activity was measured before and after each exposure using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Researchers then analysed changes in the brain’s default mode network (DMN), which is a set of interconnected brain regions that play an important role in memory and internal thought.

The fMRI showed that subjects had decreased functional connectivity in widespread regions of the DMN after exposure to diesel exhaust, compared to filtered air.

First author of the study, Doctor Jodie Gawryluk, said: “We know that altered functional connectivity in the DMN has been associated with reduced cognitive performance and symptoms of depression, so it’s concerning to see traffic pollution interrupting these same networks.

“While more research is needed to fully understand the functional impacts of these changes, it’s possible that they may impair people’s thinking or ability to work.”

How to protect yourself

It was noted that the changes in the brain were temporary and participants’ connectivity returned to normal after the exposure.

However, Dr Carlsten believed that the effects could potentially be long-lasting if continually exposed.

He warned people to be mindful of the air they’re breathing and take steps to minimise their exposure.

“People may want to think twice the next time they’re stuck in traffic with the windows rolled down,” he 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.”

Although the current study only looked at the cognitive impacts of traffic pollution, Dr Carlsten said that other products of combustion could also be a concern.

He added: “Air pollution is now recognized as the largest environmental threat to human health and we are increasingly seeing the impacts across all major organ systems.

“I expect we would see similar impacts on the brain from exposure to other air pollutants, like forest fire smoke.

“With the increasing incidence of neurocognitive disorders, it’s an important consideration for public health officials and policymakers.”

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