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A recent study led by the University of Bristol has found that exposure to air pollution during pregnancy can lead to mental health problems in adolescence. The study, published in JAMA Network Open, looked at the long-term impact of early-life exposure to air and noise pollution on mental health. It is believed that air pollution, made up of toxic gases and particulate matter, can contribute to mental health problems by compromising the blood-brain barrier, promoting neuroinflammation, and directly entering the brain and damaging tissue.

Previous research has shown that youth is a critical period for the onset of mental health problems, yet few studies have investigated the impact of air and noise pollution exposure during early life. The study examined the associations between exposure to pollution during pregnancy, childhood, and adolescence with psychotic experiences, depression, and anxiety. By using data from over 9,000 participants in the Children of the 90s birth cohort study, researchers were able to map outdoor air and noise pollution in South West England at different time points and link it to mental health reports at ages 13, 18, and 24.

The results showed that even small increases in fine particulate matter during pregnancy and childhood were associated with more psychotic experiences and depression symptoms in teenage years and early adulthood. The study found that for every 0.72 micrograms per cubic meter increase in fine particulate matter (PM2.5) during pregnancy and childhood, there was an 11% increased odds of psychotic experiences and a 9% increased odds of depression. In contrast, higher noise pollution exposure during childhood and teenage years was associated with more anxiety symptoms.

Dr. Joanne Newbury, the lead author of the study, emphasized the importance of these findings, noting that a majority of those affected by psychiatric disorders become unwell before the age of 25. She highlighted the need for interventions to reduce exposure to air pollution, such as low emissions zones, which could potentially improve mental health. The research was funded by various organizations including the University of Bristol, Wellcome, ESRC, MRC, NIHR, and NERC and involved researchers from King’s College London, UCL, and Cardiff University.

The study adds to a growing body of evidence showing the detrimental impact of air pollution on mental health. The findings suggest that interventions targeting vulnerable groups, such as pregnant women and children, could lead to rapid reductions in exposure and potentially improve mental health outcomes. While the study does not prove causation, other research has shown that low emissions zones have a positive impact on mental health. Overall, the research highlights the importance of addressing air pollution as a preventable exposure that can have significant effects on mental health.

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