Your morning commute could be inhibiting your brain function, a new study suggests.

Research published in the journal Environmental Health found a possible link between diesel exhaust inhalation and impaired cognitive function.

In the limited, randomized study, researchers analyzed the brains of 25 adults via magnetic resonance imaging. After studying the participants’ “functional connectivity” after contact, the study authors concluded that exposure to the diesel exhaust “yielded a decrease in functional connectivity” compared to filtered air.

Noting that they only analyzed the short-term effects, the study authors suggested that such a reduction in brain connectivity could be “detrimental” to the human body.

Their findings come at the same time as researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed that poor air quality can inhibit the cognitive function of chess players.

Researchers from MIT discovered that the board game players performed “objectively worse” when exposed to poor-quality air, making more “suboptimal” choices during game time.

Diesel exhaust exposure could impair cognitive abilities, one study suggests.
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“We find that when individuals are exposed to higher levels of air pollution, they make more mistakes, and they make larger mistakes,” study co-author Juan Palacios, an economist at MIT’s Sustainable Urbanization Lab, said in a statement.

The researchers analyzed 121 chess players throughout three seven-round tournaments in Germany in 2017, 2018 and 2019, which comprised more than 30,000 chess moves. Using sensors to gauge levels of various air components, researchers studied how the change in air quality affected the players’ performance.

They used software to analyze the moves made during the games, finding that when opponents were under time constraints and facing poor-quality air, their decision-making became even worse.

“We find it interesting that those mistakes especially occur in the phase of the game where players are facing time pressure,” Palacios said. “When these players do not have the ability to compensate [for] lower cognitive performance with greater deliberation, [that] is where we are observing the largest impacts.”

In another study, chess players’ ability to make proper decisions on the board was impaired.
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But the repercussions of the phenomenon extend far beyond the checkered board.

While the study measured air quality’s impact on game play, it has “strong implications for high-skilled office workers,” the authors wrote, and such data can provide pertinent information to officials making decisions about environmental clean-up.

If poor air quality affects chess players who have spent countless days, weeks and months preparing their craft, then it can affect anyone else.

“There are more and more papers showing that there is a cost with air pollution, and there is a cost for more and more people,” Palacios added.

Air pollution has been linked to a number of travesties, including environmental harm, cancer and mental health disorders. And it’s everywhere. Even Fourth of July fireworks, albeit marvelous to watch, can lower air quality in just a single night.

In fact, air pollutants cause up to 200,000 premature deaths per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Globally, that number skyrockets to 9 million, per a 2022 study.

A 2020 study suggested that New Yorkers experienced a large percentage of premature deaths due to poor air quality in 2018. The experts blamed pollution that traveled from thousands of miles away and found its way to the Big Apple.

“It’s not like you have to live next to a power plant,” Palacios said. “You can live miles away and be affected.”

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