In a new study that could help city planners and policy-makers create healthier urban environments to work and live in, researchers from ATHLETE’s partner organisation ISGlobal found that exposure to green spaces during pregnancy and early childhood can affect children’s brains.

Europe is becoming increasingly urbanised, as more and more people live and work in cities, towns, and suburbs. Around 70% of Europeans live in urban areas, with many locals exposed to poor air quality, traffic noise, and other types of environmental pollution generally associated with urban environments.

By using data from 2725 children from the Netherlands and 95 children from France born between 2002 and 2006, the researchers examined how a lack of green spaces like parks, little diversity in a city’s landscape, air pollution and road-traffic noise during pregnancy and early childhood might have an impact on the development of children’s brains. The research team did so by examining the structure of the white matter in the brain – an indicator of the connectivity between different regions of the brain, which is key for a child’s overall brain function and learning abilities.

The research results, published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Pollution, suggest that access to green spaces during the early stages of life may reduce exposure to environmental pollutants and have a positive impact on how children’s brains develop. The presence of more surrounding green spaces contributes to decreased noise levels from road traffic, thus positively impacting healthy brain development.

The study is the first to examine the associations between green spaces in urban environments and the brain’s structural connectivity. It adds to our understanding of the Human Exposome, a unique approach to studying the different forms of environmental pollution people are exposed to from pregnancy onwards. By researching the Exposome, projects like ATHLETE can help policy-makers take preventative action against harmful pollution.


Anne-Claire Binter, Laura Granés, Elise Bannier, Montserrat de Castro, Sami Petricola, Serena Fossati, Martine Vrijheid, Cécile Chevrier, Hanan El Marroun, Mark Nieuwenhuijsen, Dave Saint-Amour, Henning Tiemeier, Mònica Guxens. Urban environment during pregnancy and childhood and white matter microstructure in preadolescence in two European birth cohorts, Environmental Pollution, Volume 346, 2024, 123612, ISSN 0269-7491,