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Poor air quality in India could be causing cognitive deficits in babies and toddlers, according to new research.
Researchers from the University of East Anglia in the UK worked with the Community Empowerment Lab in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, to see how in-home air quality affects infants’ cognition.
They worked with families from a range of socio-economic backgrounds in Shivgarh, a rural community in Uttar Pradesh — one of the states in India that has been most strongly impacted by poor air quality.
In the study, the team assessed the visual working memory and visual processing speed of 215 infants using a specially-designed cognition task from October 2017 to June 2019.
“The research for the first time shows that there is an association between poor air quality and impaired visual cognition in the first two years of life, when brain growth is at its peak,” said lead researcher Prof John Spencer, from UEA’s School of Psychology.
“Such impacts could carry forward across years, negatively impacting long-term development,” he added, in the paper published in the journal eLife.
Spencer said that previous studies have linked poor air quality with cognitive deficits in children, as well as to emotional and behavioural problems.
But “until now, studies had failed to show a link between poor air quality and cognitive problems in babies, when brain growth is at its peak and the brain may be particularly sensitive to toxins. Our study is the first to show this association”, Spencer said.
He explained that “very small particulate fragments in the air are a major concern as they can move from the respiratory tract into the brain”.
Using air quality monitors in the children’s homes the team also measured emission levels and air quality. They also took into account and controlled for family socio-economic status.
“We found that air quality was poorer in homes that used solid cooking materials like cow dung cake,” Spencer said. “Therefore, efforts to reduce cooking emissions in homes should be a key target for intervention.”
The research also indicates that global efforts to improve air quality could have benefits to infants’ emerging cognitive abilities, he said.
“This, in turn, could have a cascade of positive impacts because improved cognition can lead to improved economic productivity in the long term and reduce the burden on healthcare and mental health systems,” Spencer said.
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