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Traffic air pollution may be linked to structural brain changes
Air pollution poses "a significant risk to brain development" according to researchers.
- A study found that childhood exposure to significant traffic-related air pollution (TRAP) is linked with structural changes in the brain.
- Among children who had been exposed to higher levels of TRAP, researchers found smaller regional gray matter volumes in some areas of the brain including the cerebellum.
- Increased levels in early life TRAP were associated with increases in depression and anxiety scores for the children in the study.
An alarming new study found evidence that childhood exposure to significant traffic-related air pollution, or TRAP, is linked with structural changes in the brain. The longitudinal study conducted by the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center (CCHMC) discovered that children who were exposed to higher levels of TRAP during their first year of life had reductions in their gray matter volume and cortical thickness at age 12 when compared to peers with lower levels of exposure. Traffic-related air pollution is a toxic cocktail of gaseous pollutants that come from the emissions of motor vehicles as a result of fossil fuel combustion. These latest findings support evidence that TRAP, which can directly access the brain through nasal inhalation, contributes to neurological developmental disorders and diseases.
How the study was done
Clusters represent reduced cortical thickness in the high ECAT group compared to the low ECAT group.
Image Source: PLOS ONE
The participants in the study were a subset of children enrolled in the Cincinnati Childhood Allergy and Air Pollution Study. Researchers wanted to see if early life exposure to traffic-related air pollution was associated with changes in brain volume and cortical thickness. To do this, they used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to get anatomical brain images from a group of 147 12-year-old volunteers characterized by either high or low levels of TRAP exposure during their first year of life. That exposure was estimated using an "air sampling network" of 27 sites around Cincinnati. The average TRAP exposure for the high exposure group was about twice as high as the low exposure group. Using the anatomical brain images, researchers measured cortical thickness and differences in regional brain volume among the group of child-participants.
Reduced gray matter volume in the high ECAT group compared to the low ECAT group.
Image Source: PLOS ONE
The results of the study suggest that where a child lives and the air quality in that location can affect how his or her brain develops.
"Our study found that children with higher levels of exposure to TRAP demonstrated regional reductions of cortical thickness and gray matter volume relative to children with lower levels," write the authors of the study.
Gray matter includes areas of the brain that are involved in sensory perception (seeing, hearing, smelling, etc.) and motor control. Cortical thickness reflects the depth of outer gray matter. Among the children exposed to higher levels of TRAP, researchers found smaller regional gray matter volumes in certain areas of the brain including the cerebellum. This brain region grows rapidly in the first two years of life and is involved in the regulation of motor function, cognition, and emotion. "Cerebellar abnormalities are consistently associated with numerous mental health disorders including anxiety, ADHD, ASD, and schizophrenia," the authors note.
Decreased cerebellar volumes have also been linked to levels of depression and anxiety, and the researchers found evidence that each .25 mg per cubic meter increase in early life TRAP was associated with increases in depression and anxiety scores for the children. Similar evidence has associated air pollution with higher levels of anxiety and depression in adults. The study, however, is limited in that the findings hinge upon a single MRI examination showing a single moment in time of ongoing brain development.
"While the results are concerning, there still needs to be more research conducted to confirm and replicate the results, and to expand the analysis to include those whose [TRAP] exposure level falls in the middle as our study design only examined the high and low exposed participants," writes Dr. Kim Cecil, a researcher at CCHMC and lead author of the study, in an email to Big Think. "It is also important to note that elevated exposure doesn't necessarily mean children will experience any adverse effects."
She notes that at this point in the research, the study participants have been found to have normal IQ distributions.
How to know what the air quality is in your area
In 2018, one-third of Americans were living in an area that experienced poor air quality due to pollution. To find out what the air quality is in your area, you can go to the World's Air Pollution: Real-Time Air Quality Index. If you want to monitor the air quality in your own home, investing in an air quality monitor might be worth it, but what can you do if the numbers are showing a concerning level of air pollution?
"Though it can be difficult to avoid air pollution itself, doing things like exercising (in lesser exposed environments such as parks and other green spaces) and eating foods high in antioxidants may help mitigate the effects," writes Cecil. " We think inflammation is the primary mechanism behind our results, so things you can control like diet and exercise can be beneficial."
There's also a growing need to address the root of the problem. The fossil fuel industry, and government support of it, facilitate American reliance on fossil fuels that causes traffic-related air pollution. National, state, and local policy makers have a large role to play in protecting public health by strengthening air quality protections. Rather than subsidizing fossil fuels, elected officials can propose or support legislation that reduces our reliance on pollutants that diminish our air quality and put children's health at risk.
- Air pollution reduces human intelligence, study shows - Big Think ›
- In the US, Air Pollution Causes 200,000 Annual Deaths - Big Think ›
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
With just a few strategical tweaks, the Nazis could have won one of World War II's most decisive battles.
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Two strategic blunders<p>Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce <a href="http://www-users.york.ac.uk/~nm15/bootstrapBoB%20AAMS.docx" target="_blank">a statistical model (docx download)</a> capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different. </p><p>Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.</p><p>"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a <a href="https://www.york.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/2020/research/mathematicians-battle-britain-what-if-scenarios/" target="_blank">statement</a>. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.</p><p>"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."</p><p>Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.</p><p>Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.</p>
A tool for understanding history<p>This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."</p><p>The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.</p><p>Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.</p>
We’ve mapped a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Take the virtual tour here.
See the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
Astronomers have mapped about a million previously undiscovered galaxies beyond the Milky Way, in the most detailed survey of the southern sky ever carried out using radio waves.
A new study shows our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center than previously estimated.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology.