Air pollution raises risk of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders

Exposing pregnant women to dirty air and stress can increase the chances of boys being born with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. 

A study conducted by Duke University has identified a potential correlation between air pollution and stress exposure among expectant mothers, and baby boys developing neurological disorders such as autism. 

toddler's playing building block toys

The research, which focused on mice, points to a heightened risk of males being born predisposed to autism-like social behaviour and having differently wired brains. Nine in 10 people across the globe currently breathe polluted air, raising questions as to why autism rates remain significantly lower than worldwide air pollution exposure levels.  

‘Environmental toxins are worse for some people than for others and it’s always the most vulnerable populations that are affected,” said Staci Bilbo, psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University, who suggests maternal stress factors such as poverty and housing insecurity could be hidden clues as to which children will go on to develop conditions, and which will not. ‘It’s not that wealthy people aren’t stressed,’ Bilbo continued. ‘But it’s different when you have to worry about where you’re going to live and whether you’re safe in your home.’

Due to ethical regulations, the study could not be conducted on pregnant women, and instead used mice. The team observed that when diesel particles were introduced to the controlled setting, and less building materials were given to the animals than normal, female babies would go on to develop as expected, but male children regularly misread social cues throughout their lives. 

Air pollution is already understood to change brain connectivity in children, and also impacts the function of respiratory systems, with those from poorer backgrounds more likely to develop persistent asthma

Image credit:  Kelly Sikkema


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Stephanie Trotter, OBE
Stephanie Trotter, OBE
1 year ago

Very interesting research but could the research be done again testing indoor air as well as outdoor?

1 year ago

Can we really draw conclusions about pregant women based on experiments using mice? Why would male offspring be more likely to be affected than female? Was the developmental damage more likely to be from “less building materials” given to the mother mice or from their exposure to diesel fumes? As far as I know, humans with autism do not have “differently wired brains” but I could be wrong. Can you give us a link to the study please Martin so I can find out about the background and more about the results. Thanks.

Stephanie Trotter, OBE
Stephanie Trotter, OBE
1 year ago
Reply to  chris

I agree with your questions. Do humans with autism have differently wired brains? How is a normal brain wired?

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