The morning commute is already challenging and exhausting for many people. And now there’s another reason to detest your regular travel to work or school as scientists found that even brief exposure to diesel fumes from cars and other vehicles could hurt the human brain.

In a randomized controlled crossover study published in the journal Environmental Health, researchers analyzed how a brief diesel exhaust exposure could acutely impair functional brain connectivity.

The idea that traffic-related air pollution takes a toll on human health is not new. But for their study, the team focused on whether diesel fumes inhibited the human brain from functioning properly. They analyzed the brains of 25 adults via magnetic resonance imaging to determine the effects of polluted air.

After examining the scans and studying the participants’ “functional connectivity” after contact, they found that exposure to diesel fumes “yielded a decrease in functional connectivity” compared to clean filtered air.

Though the scientists noted that they only analyzed the short-term effects of diesel exhaust, they said the effect of the fume on the brain could be “detrimental” to human health in the long run.

“We observed short-term pollution-attributable decrements in default mode network functional connectivity. Decrements in brain connectivity causes many detrimental effects to the human body so this finding should guide policy change in air pollution exposure regulation,” the team concluded.

A similar study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published in Management Science looked into how poor air quality affects the cognitive function of chess players.

The team found that even expert chess players performed worse when subjected to poor air quality, suggesting that pollution particles in the air negatively affect cognitive function.

"We find that when individuals are exposed to higher levels of air pollution, they make more and more mistakes, and they make larger mistakes," co-author Juan Palacios, an economist in MIT's Sustainable Urbanization Lab, explained in a statement.

“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. And this is just one example showing that even for these very [excellent] chess players, who think they can beat everything—well, it seems that with air pollution, they have an enemy who harms them,” he added.

Findings on pollution damage to human airways could yield new therapies
Findings on pollution damage to human airways could yield new therapies