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The Sneaky Way Your Daily Commute Could Be Harming Brain Function

This is your brain on fumes.

For this research, scientists looked at the effects of traffic fumes on 25 healthy adults. They studied brain scans before and after exposure and found that traffic fumes had immediate effects on the brain, decreasing connectivity between brain networks and overall cognitive function.

While the effects of pollution on humans have long been studied, this study is the first to look specifically at its acute effects on brain activity.

Chris Carlsten, M.D., a senior author of the study, said in a statement, “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.”

One significant limitation of the study was that it compared filtered air with air contaminated with diesel fuel, and diesel vehicles are less common than gasoline in vehicles on American roads and highways. Additional studies that include more types of traffic fumes will help us understand the global implication of these findings.

It will also be interesting to see what long-term studies find in addition to these acute, adverse effects.

The latest findings regarding cognitive decline are another reason to avoid breathing polluted air whenever possible (and push your local legislatures to help incentivize the transition to EVs). Seeking cleaner air is easier said than done, especially for racial minorities andlower-income groups that bear the brunt of air pollution in the U.S.2

“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,” says Carlsten. “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.”

These findings collectively represent a growing public health crisis that will require collective action to tackle. As cleaner energy, vehicle, and home power options are discussed as green and sustainable options, positive health outcomes should be considered as part of the equation.

How to commute smarter.

While many people don’t have the luxury of moving their home further from main roads or cutting out their morning commute entirely, there are some takeaways from the study that can help you set yourself up to avoid the worst effects of pollution exposure.

Carlsten recommends driving with your windows rolled up and making sure your car’s air filter is in working order, meaning it should be of high quality and replaced regularly. If you walk, bike, or take public transport, you’re already part of the solution, but you still may fall victim to pollution. Carlsten recommends rerouting to avoid the busiest driving streets.

There are also ways to combat the effects of exposure to pollutants (because let’s face it–it’s somewhat inevitable). You can lean on vitamin C as a powerful topical antioxidant or try an expert-vetted liver detox supplement to support your body’s natural detoxification pathway.

The takeaway.

Researchers at the University of British Columbia studied the effects of common traffic pollutants and found that common levels of traffic pollution are detrimental to human brain function. Cognitive decline and symptoms of depression were among the effects observed with just two hours of exposure to diesel fumes. The researchers recommend keeping your windows up while driving and avoiding heavily trafficked streets where possible to keep your mind sharp.

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