The green life: MRI shows brain benefits to children

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  • Published: Mar 1, 2018
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: MRI Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: The green life: MRI shows brain benefits to children

The 3D brain

Three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has shown that long-term exposure to green space during childhood is associated with beneficial structural changes in the developing brain.

Three-dimensional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has shown that long-term exposure to green space during childhood is associated with beneficial structural changes in the developing brain.

Researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), a centre supported by the “la Caixa” Foundation, in collaboration with the Hospital del Mar, Spain, and the University of California Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health (UCLA FSPH) have demonstrated that primary school-aged children who have been raised in homes surrounded by more green space, as opposed to urban environments that lack trees, grass, and other vegetation, tend to have with larger volumes of white and grey matter in particular areas of the brain.

The anatomical differences seen in the MRI scans have been associated with beneficial effects on cognitive function and the suggestion is that there may well be an association between living in such an environment and positive development in the brain. Of course, there may be many confounding factors and it is presumably not the presence of vegetation but the play and education opportunities that such an environment offers to a child. Equally, it might be that parents who choose or can afford to live in homes with plenty of surrounding green space are more able to offer their children better learning opportunities or access to resources, including better nutrition, may well be a factor in general for brain development in children.

Green space and grey matter

The study was carried out on a group of 253 schoolchildren from the BREATHE project in Barcelona. The researchers estimated the local residential green space using satellite maps and tied this to the children’s addresses from birth up through to the time of the study. Brain anatomy was studied using high-resolution 3D MRI and the team tested working memory and inattentiveness using computer-based tests.

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

The team's analysis of the data revealed that growing up with access to surrounding green space was positively associated with increased white and grey matter volume in some parts of the brain. The regions of increased volume partly overlapped with regions associated with higher scores in the cognitive tests. Moreover, the peak volume of white and grey matter in the regions connected with green space exposure were associated with better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.

Natural bond

It is thought that humans have an evolutionary bond between our development and the environment in which we live. More specifically, green spaces are thought to offer children many for psychological development and restoration, as well as triggering discovery, creativity, risk taking, and fun. This in turn will have a positive effect on brain development. Another confounding factor in explaining the benefits is that greener areas tend to have lower air pollution, reduced noise levels, and perhaps even better 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,” explains co-author Michael Jerrett, of UCLA FSPH. More research now needs to be done to investigate the details. It will be useful to look at different populations to see whether or not the effect occurs with other groups of children in different settings and climates.

Related Links

Environ Health Perspect 2018, online: "The Association between Lifelong Greenspace Exposure and 3-Dimensional Brain Magnetic Resonance Imaging in Barcelona Schoolchildren"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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