Living Close to Major Roadways Can Affect Children’s Brain Function and Development

Living Close to Major Roadways Can Affect Children’s Brain Function and Development
Cheng Peng, Martijn den Dekker, Andres Cardenas, Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Heike Gibson, Golareh Agha, Maria H. Harris, Brent A. Coull, Joel Schwartz, Augusto A. Litonjua, Dawn L. DeMeo, Marie-France Hivert, Matthew W. Gilman, Sharon K. Sagiv, Yvonne de Kli
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A large portion of the population lives near major roadways, yet a growing body of research finds living near roadways negatively affects children’s health. This study evaluates the association between residential proximity to roadways at birth and epigenetic markers that affect health. DNA methylation modifies the function of genes and can affect how cells interpret genetic “instructions.” Epigenomes in fetuses are more susceptible to environmental stimuli, and changes to these genes can lead to increased risks of adverse health outcomes later in life.

Researchers conducted this study using 482 mother-child pairs from Project Viva, a longitudinal research birth cohort in eastern Massachusetts, between 1999 and 2002. The same birth cohort received a follow-up screening between ages 7 and 11. Researchers used a geographic information system to calculate the distance between self-reported residential addresses at birth and major roadways. Roughly half (48 percent) of the children were female, and the study population was mostly white (71 percent). Researchers adjusted for factors such as maternal education and neighborhood median household income.

Key findings

  • Living closer to major roadways at birth was associated with changes to LAMB2, a gene linked to neurological function and development, as measured in umbilical cord blood.
  • The association between major roadway proximity and epigenetic effects were consistent between males and females and between children of white and nonwhite mothers.
  • In DNA extracted from the same cohort of children when they were between ages 7 and 11, proximity to major roadways during pregnancy remained positively associated with higher levels of methylation—a modification that can change gene expression.
  • Higher methylation was associated with lower nonverbal cognitive scores at ages 7 to 11 in the same cohort of children.
  • A similar study in the Netherlands did not produce statistically significant results, so the authors caution that additional research is needed to verify their findings.

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