Childhood developmental scores and levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) — a key protein for brain development — are significantly higher with decreased levels of exposure to air pollution in utero, according to a new study that examined the after-effects of the closure of a coal-burning power plant in Tongliang, China.
The study — performed by researchers from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health at the Mailman School of Public Health — is the first to directly assess “BDNF and cognitive development with respect to prenatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a component of air pollution commonly emitted from coal burning.”
When it was announced that the coal-burning power plant in Tongliang was to be closed in 2004, researchers then realized the great opportunity being presented to study the benefits to development, and the impacts on BDNF associated with decreased levels of exposure to PAH.
The study findings have certainly validated this interest — decreases in air pollution have now been clearly linked with decreased levels of PAH-DNA adducts in cord blood, a biological marker of exposure. The research has also shown a clear association between PAH exposure and adverse developmental outcomes in children born before the plant closure.
Given that China currently generates more than 70% of its electricity with coal-fired power plants, the findings are certainly notable. Perhaps this study will serve as yet further impetus for addressing the great air-pollution problems that China is currently facing.
Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health provides more:
Deliang Tang, MD, DrPH, and his colleagues followed two groups of mother-child pairs from pregnancy into early childhood. One of the groups was made up of mothers pregnant while the coal power plant was still open and the other after it closed. Developmental delay was determined using a standardized test, the Gesell Developmental Schedule (GDS), which was adapted for the Chinese population. The GDS assesses children in four areas: motor skills, learned behaviors, language, and social adaptation.
The researchers found that, as hypothesized, decreased PAH exposure resulting from the power plant closure was associated with both increased BDNF levels and increased developmental scores. PAH-DNA adducts were significantly lower in the babies born after the coal power plant shutdown as compared to those born before the closure, indicating a meaningful exposure reduction. Moreover, the researchers found that the mean level of BDNF was higher among children born after the closure of the power plant. The impacts of PAH exposure and BDNF on developmental scores was also analyzed considering all the children, including both the pre- and post-closure groups. Increased scores in the average, motor, and social areas were linked with higher levels of BDNF.
“The key to limiting the health impacts of environmental exposures is policy change supported by scientific evidence. These findings indicate that regulation can rapidly decrease exposure and improve health outcomes among the most sensitive populations, providing support for implementing additional measures such as the closure of the Tongliang coal-fired power plant,” states Dr Tang, director of the China studies at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health and associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the Mailman School.
The new research is detailed in a paper published in the journal PLOS ONE.