ASPPH logo


Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UCLA: Green Spaces and Cognitive Growth in Children

Dr. Michael Jerrett, chair of FSPH Environmental Health Sciences, co-authored a study that suggests contact with nature may play a crucial role in brain development.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reports a link between exposure to green spaces at school and cognitive development in primary schoolchildren. Contact with nature is thought to play a crucial and irreplaceable role in brain development but available evidence on such role is still scarce.

To test the association between cognitive maturation and exposure to green spaces at home and school and during commutes, a study led by Dr. Payam Dadvand and coordinated by Dr. Jordi Sunyer, researchers at CREAL, an ISGlobal allied center, monitored changes in cognitive measures every three months between January 2012 and March 2013 among nearly 2,600 primary schoolchildren 7-10 years of age in Barcelona, Spain.

Over a 12-month period, exposure to greenness within and around schools-as determined by satellite data-was linked with enhanced mental ability to continuously manipulate and update information-faculties called working memory and superior working memory, respectively-and with reduced inattentiveness, regardless of ethnicity, maternal education, and parental employment.

Each interquartile range increment in total surrounding greenness was linked with a 5 percent increase in working memory, a 6 percent increase in superior working memory, and 1 percent reduction in inattentiveness. “We also found that traffic-related air pollution accounted for 20-65 percent of the estimated links between school greenness and cognitive development. A part of the observed influence of green spaces on cognitive development could be mediated by the ability of green spaces in reducing air pollution which itself has been negatively linked to cognitive development”, explains Dadvand.

However, no link was observed between exposure to greenness at home and cognitive measures. “Given the soaring rates of global urbanization, expanding green spaces at schools might lead to improvements in cognitive development for schoolchildren, which ultimately can result in an advantage in mental capital at population level, according to the authors”, concludes Dr. Sunyer.