New European research has found that children who have grown up near vast areas of greenspace show larger volumes of white and grey matter in the brain, which could have a beneficial effect on cognitive function.

Led by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal), in collaboration with the Hospital del Mar (Spain) and the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health (UCLA FSPH), the study looked at 253 schoolchildren taking part in the BREATHE project in Barcelona, Spain.

The team estimated the children’s exposure to greenspace in their neighbourhood from birth up through to the time of the study, and assessed brain anatomy using high-resolution 3D magnetic resonance images (MRI). Working memory and inattentiveness were measured with computerised tests.

The results showed that long-term exposure to greenspace was positively associated with volumes of white and grey matter volume in certain areas of the brain, which partly overlap with the areas associated with higher scores on cognitive tests.

In addition, high volumes of white and grey matter in the areas of the brain associated with greenspace exposure also predicted better working memory and reduced inattentiveness.

“This is the first study that evaluates the association between long-term exposure to greenspace and brain structure,” says Dr Payam Dadvand, ISGlobal researcher and leading author of the study. “Our findings suggest that exposure to greenspace early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain.”

The results back up findings from a previous study which also looked at children taking part in the BREATHE project, and showed that those who attended schools with more outdoor greenspace had a greater increase in working memory and a greater reduction in inattentiveness than children who attended schools with less greenspace nearby.

Previous research has also shown that exposure to greenspace and time in nature could also potentially improve academic performance, and reduce stress and aggressive behaviour.

Greenspaces are believed to have a beneficial effect on brain development as they provide children with opportunities for discovery, creativity and risk taking, as well as psychological restoration. They also often have lower levels of pollution and noise and encourage physical activity, all of which can have a positive effect on brain development.

The results of the study are published online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. – AFP Relaxnews