2018

Being raised in greener neighborhoods may have beneficial effects on brain development


A study shows for the first time that exposure to greenery during childhood is associated with beneficial structural changes in the developing brain.

Mom and child walking along street

Primary schoolchildren who have been raised in homes surrounded by more greenspace tend to present with larger volumes of white and grey matter in certain areas of the brain. Those anatomic differences are in turn associated with beneficial effects on cognitive function. This is the main conclusion of a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives and led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a center supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation, in collaboration with the Hospital del Mar (Spain) and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health (UCLA FSPH).

The study was performed in a subcohort of 253 schoolchildren from the BREATHE project in Barcelona (Spain). Lifelong exposure to residential greenspace was estimated using satellite-based information on the children’s addresses from birth up through to the time of the study. Brain anatomy was studied using high-resolution 3D magnetic resonance images (MRI). Working memory and inattentiveness were evaluated with computerized tests.

“This is the first study that evaluates the association between long-term exposure to greenspace and brain structure,” says Dr. Payam Dadvand, ISGlobal researcher and leading author of the study. “Our findings suggest that exposure to greenspace early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain.”

The data analysis showed that long-term exposure to greenness was positively associated with white and grey matter volume in some parts of the brain that partly overlapped with those associated with higher scores on cognitive tests. Moreover, peak volumes of white and grey matter in the regions associated with greenspace exposure predicted better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.

Contact to nature has been thought to be essential for brain development in children. A previous study of 2,593 children ages 7 to 10 from the BREATHE project showed that, during the 12-month course of the study, children who attended schools with higher outdoor greenspace had a greater increase in working memory and a greater reduction in inattentiveness than children who attended schools with less surrounding greenness.

The Biophilia hypothesis suggests an evolutionary bond of humans to nature. Accordingly, green spaces are suggested to provide children with opportunities for psychological restoration and prompt important exercises in discovery, creativity and risk taking, which, in turn, are suggested to positively influence different aspects of brain development. Furthermore, greener areas often have lower levels of air pollution and noise and may enrich microbial inputs from the environment, all of which could translate into indirect benefits for brain development.

“The study adds to growing evidence suggesting that early life exposure to green space and other environmental factors can exert measurable and lasting effects on our health through the life course,” says co-author Michael Jerrett, department chair and professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health.

“These results also might provide clues on how such structural changes could underlie the observed beneficial effects of greenspace exposure on cognitive and behavioral development,” explains Dr. Jesus Pujol, from the Radiology unit at Hospital del Mar and co-author of the study. 

“This study adds to the existing evidence about the benefits of transforming our cities by increasing access to the natural environment,” says Prof. Jordi Sunyer, an ISGlobal researcher and last author of the study.

Further studies are needed to confirm the results in other populations, settings and climates, evaluate other cognitive and neurological outcomes and examine differences according to the nature and quality of greenspace and children’s access to and use of them.

Faculty Referenced by this Article

Michael Jerrett
Michael Jerrett
Environmental Health Sciences
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Brian Cole
Brian Cole
Environmental Health Sciences
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Miriam Marlier
Miriam Marlier
Environmental Health Sciences
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Niklas Krause
Environmental Health Sciences Epidemiology
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Andre Nel
André Nel
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Pouran D. Faghri
Pouran D. Faghri
Environmental Health Sciences
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Timothy Malloy
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Robert Schiestl
Robert Schiestl
Environmental Health Sciences
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Angelo J Bellomo
Angelo Bellomo
Environmental Health Sciences
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Nicole Green
Environmental Health Sciences
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Michael Collins
Michael Collins
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Daniel Uslan
Daniel Uslan
Environmental Health Sciences
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Mel Suffet
Irwin Suffet
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Yifang Zhu
Yifang Zhu
Environmental Health Sciences
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Jian Li
Jian Li
Environmental Health Sciences Epidemiology
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Arthur Cho
Arthur Cho
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Oliver Hankinson
Oliver Hankinson

Dr. Hankinson is a Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and of EHS, and Chair of the Molecular Toxicology IDP

Environmental Health Sciences
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Curtis Eckhert
Curtis Eckhert
Environmental Health Sciences
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Kirsten Schwarz
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Candace Tsai
Candace Tsai

Associate Professor for Industrial Hygiene and Environmental Health Sciences

Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Wendie Robbins
Wendie Robbins
Environmental Health Sciences
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Arabzadah, Hamid
Hamid Arabzadeh
Environmental Health Sciences
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Feng Gao
Feng Gao
Environmental Health Sciences
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Jesus Araujo
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Beate Ritz
Beate Ritz
Environmental Health Sciences Epidemiology
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Arthur Winer
Environmental Health Sciences
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Pablo Cicero-Fernandez
Pablo Cicero-Fernandez
Environmental Health Sciences
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Richard J. Jackson
Richard J. Jackson
Environmental Health Sciences
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Richard Ambrose
Richard Ambrose
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Shane Que Hee
Shane Que Hee

Industrial Hygiene & Analytical Chemistry

Environmental Health Sciences
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Jared Diamond
Jared Diamond
Environmental Health Sciences
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Rachael Jones
Rachael Jones
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Jane Valentine
Jane Valentine
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Lara Cushing
Lara Cushing
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Kevin Njabo
Kevin Njabo
Environmental Health Sciences
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Rosenstock
Linda Rosenstock
Environmental Health Sciences Health Policy and Management
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Tao Huai
Tao Huai
Environmental Health Sciences
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Dr. Michael Jerrett, chair of FSPH Environmental Health Sciences, co-authored a study that suggests contact with nature may play a crucial role in brain development.

Source: Centre for Research in Environmental Epidemiology (CREAL) Read Full Article