Air Pollution Has Potential Links to Autism

Enlargement of part of the brain that is seen in humans who have autism and schizophrenia. Credit: Image courtesy of University of Rochester Medical Center

A new study conducted by the university of Rochester Medical Center and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives examines how exposure to air pollution early in life can have harmful effects on the development of the brain, including an enlargement in a part of the brain that is the same in humans with autism and schizophrenia. These findings are consistent with some other recent studies that have linked air quality and autism in children. The 2013 study in JAMA Psychiatry concluded that children who lived in areas with high levels of car related air pollution, especially during the first three years of their life were three times more likely to develop autism as well as other neurodevelopmental disorders.

Cory-Slechta, lead author the study and her colleagues exposed mice to different levels of air pollution that is usually found in mid-sized cities in the US during rush hour. In three sets of experiments, they exposed the mice to the air two weeks after their birth, which is a critical time for brain development, for four hours each day for two four-day periods.Similarly in humans, the male mice were most affected. Consequently, autism is also more prevalent in boys.

In one group where the mice were examined after 24 hours of final exposure, there was clearly inflammation in parts of the brain, which were enlarged up to two to three times their normal sizes. The white matter of their brains that should have developed in those enlarged areas seemed to have very stunted growth. These same problems were observed in a second group of mice 40 days after final exposure and again 270 days after exposure, showing that the brain damage was permanent.

Air pollution is typically composed of carbon particles that are produced by cars, factories, and power plants. However, different sized particles can produce different effects in the lungs and in the body. The larger particles that are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are actually the least harmful because they tend to be coughed and expelled naturally from our bodies.  Whereas the ultrafine particles that are not regulated by the EPA, can be more dangerous as they are small enough to be absorbed into the bloodstream and create toxic effects on the body. 

Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Rochester, Cory Slechta says, “I think these findings are going to raise new questions about whether the current regulatory standards for air quality are sufficient to protect our children.”

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To read the original article about the study, click here.