Episodes of psychosis linked to air pollution

A new study on teenagers living in England and Wales has found that psychotic experiences are becoming increasingly common due to exposure to pollution. The results of the study were published in the latest issue of the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Air pollution near busy roads has been linked to increased episodes of psychosisrodimov | Shutterstock

According to researchers from King's College London, the study is an indication of why the children from urban regions are more likely to get psychotic problems compared to those in rural areas. They go to say, however, that more research is needed to be certain of the association between air pollution and psychotic episodes among youngsters.

The study looked at around 2000 teenagers who were living in a variety of regions - urban, semi-urban and rural areas. The authors found that around one third of these teenagers (623 participants) had experienced at least one psychotic experience between ages 12 and 18 years. This included paranoia, hallucinations (visual and auditory) etc.

The researchers then measured nitrogen dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter - PM2.5 and PM10 in the different regions studied. For each of the participants two places where they frequent including school, shops, homes etc.

The team analyzed the estimates of air pollution for each of the teenagers over one year and noted that in the most polluted areas, for every 20 teenagers who did not experience a psychotic experience, 12 teenagers did.

Psychotic experiences were most common in urban areas near busy roads. In less polluted regions, the ratio went down to 7 teenagers experiencing psychosis for every 20 who did not.

The team went on to consolidate their data by accounting for other factors such as family history of psychiatric illness, alcohol and drug abuse and social problems etc.

We found that adolescent psychotic experiences were more common in urban areas… Our findings suggest air pollution could be a contributing factor in the link between city living and psychotic experiences.”

Dr Joanne Newbury, Lead Author

There have been several studies that show a connection between air pollution and several physical ailments. Heart and lungs are most commonly affected. This study reveals that mental health is also affected with pollution say experts.

The team speculates that the particulate matter in air could be responsible for travelling up to the brain via blood and this may cause inflammation that leads to mental health problems later in life.

Noise pollution has also been  linked to mental health problems, as noise can disrupt sleep and have a significant effect on mental health. This was however not measured in this study.

There seems to be some link between exposure to air pollution and effects in the brain and this [new research] is perhaps another example of this. Children and young people are most vulnerable to the health impacts of air pollution owing to the juvenility of the brain and respiratory system.”

Prof Frank Kelly, Co-author


Association of Air Pollution Exposure With Psychotic Experiences During Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. March 27, 2019. DOI:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2019.0056.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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