Effects of Prenatal Exposure to Air Pollutants on Development of Brain White Matter, Cognition, and Behavior in Later Childhood

Importance:  Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are ubiquitous and neurotoxic environmental contaminants. Prenatal PAH exposure is associated with subsequent cognitive and behavioral disturbances in childhood.

Objectives:  To identify the effects of prenatal PAH exposure on brain structure and to assess the cognitive and behavioral correlates of those abnormalities in school-age children.

Design, Setting, and Participants: Cross-sectional imaging study in a representative community-based cohort followed up prospectively from the fetal period to ages 7 to 9 years. The setting was urban community residences and an academic imaging center. Participants included a sample of 40 minority urban youth born to Latina (Dominican) or African American women.

Main Outcomes and Measures:  Morphological measures that index local volumes of the surface of the brain and of the white matter surface after cortical gray matter was removed.

Results:  We detected a dose-response relationship between increased prenatal PAH exposure (measured in the third trimester but thought to index exposure for all of gestation) and reductions of the white matter surface in later childhood that were confined almost exclusively to the left hemisphere of the brain and that involved almost its entire surface. Reduced left hemisphere white matter was associated with slower information processing speed during intelligence testing and with more severe externalizing behavioral problems, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms and conduct disorder problems. The magnitude of left hemisphere white matter disturbances mediated the significant association of PAH exposure with slower processing speed. In addition, measures of postnatal PAH exposure correlated with white matter surface measures in dorsal prefrontal regions bilaterally when controlling for prenatal PAH.

Conclusions and Relevance:  Our findings suggest that prenatal exposure to PAH air pollutants contributes to slower processing speed, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder symptoms, and externalizing problems in urban youth by disrupting the development of left hemisphere white matter, whereas postnatal PAH exposure contributes to additional disturbances in the development of white matter in dorsal prefrontal regions.

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