When I was just three months old, my family made the move from a busy urban area to a quieter, smaller community. Prior to moving, my parents and siblings spent every summer in said neighborhood—there was a lake to swim in, parks to play on, and plenty of greenery to enjoy, all of which was in sharp contrast to home a couple hours away.

Soon enough, their love for the heavily wooded area prompted their move and just in time for me to have a wonderful childhood there.

I’m incredibly thankful I had the opportunity to grow up where I did—not only do I love the outdoors because of my childhood home, but I’ve benefitted greatly because of the time I’ve spent immersed in nature. Taking a quick stroll around the block, going for a swim, or just wandering in the woods has proven to relieve stress during difficult times, improve my concentration when I’m having a hard time focusing, and—according to new research—has probably led to my healthy brain development.

This study, which is published in Environmental Health Perspectives, found that primary schoolchildren who grew up in greener areas tended to have more white and grey matter in certain areas of the brain—and these differences are associated with beneficial effects on cognitive function. “This is the first study that evaluates the association between long-term exposure to greenspace and brain structure,” said Dr. Payam Dadvand, ISGlobal researcher and lead author of the study. “Our findings suggest that exposure to greenspace early in life could result in beneficial structural changes in the brain.”

This conclusion was made after researchers from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) analyzed a subcohort of 253 schoolchildren from the BREATHE project in Barcelona. Lifelong exposure to residential greenspace was estimated using satellite-based information on the children’s homes from birth up through the present. In addition, their brain anatomy was studied using MRIs, and the subjects’ working memory and inattentiveness were measured with computerized testing.

Upon analysis of the aforementioned data, the researchers found that long-term exposure to greenness positively correlated with the amount of white and grey matter in certain areas of the brain, which partly coincided with higher scores on cognitive tests. Furthermore, the greatest volumes of white and grey matter in these brain regions associated with greenspace exposure predicted better working memory and improved attentiveness.

Ultimately, this study suggests that there is an evolutionary bond us humans have with nature—which makes spending time in nature significantly beneficial to our overall health and wellbeing. Past research has shown that spending time outside can reduce anxiety and stress, increase feelings of happiness, and inspire creativity, just to name a few of these scientifically-proven benefits.

This research just adds to the growing pile of evidence that shows how valuable time in nature is. Furthermore, “these results also might provide clues on how structural changes could underlie the observed beneficial effects of greenspace exposure on cognitive and behavioral development,” according to Dr. Jesus Pujol, co-author of the study. However, further research is needed to confirm this study’s findings.

UCLA. (2018, February 22). Being Raised in Greener Neighborhoods May Have Effects on Brain Development. [Press Release]. Retrieved on February 26, 2018 from https://ph.ucla.edu/news/press-release/2018/feb/being-raised-greener-neighborhoods-may-have-beneficial-effects-brain