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How is global warming affecting the human brain?

An international team of researchers led by the University of Vienna has revealed the potential impact of climate change on the human brain. The experts are investigating how our changing environment might affect brain function now and in the future.

Focus of the study

“Anthropogenic climate change poses a substantial threat to societal living conditions. Here, we argue that neuroscience can substantially contribute to the fight against climate change and provide a framework and a roadmap to organize and prioritize neuroscience research in this domain,” wrote the researchers.

Understanding the impacts

Study lead author Dr. Kimberly C. Doell emphasized the urgency of this research. “We’ve long known that factors in our environment can lead to changes in the brain. Yet we’re only just beginning to look at how climate change, the greatest global threat of our time, might change our brains,” said Dr. Doell.

“Given the increasingly frequent extreme weather events we’re already experiencing, alongside factors such as air pollution, the way we access nature and the stress and anxiety people experience around climate change, it’s crucial that we understand the impact this could all have on our brains. Only then can we start to find ways to mitigate these changes.”

Brain development 

Studies conducted since the 1940s, primarily on mice, have demonstrated that environmental factors can significantly influence brain development and plasticity. 

Similar effects have been observed in humans, particularly in research examining the impacts of poverty on brain development, highlighting environmental influences on brain function.

Urgent research 

The paper calls for urgent research into how exposure to extreme weather events like heatwaves, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, and floods may alter brain structure, function, and overall health. It seeks to unravel how these changes might explain shifts in well-being and behavior.

Furthermore, the study explores the role neuroscience could play in shaping our understanding of climate change and influencing our judgments and responses. 

Neural activity

“Understanding neural activity that is relevant to motivations, emotions and temporal horizons may help predict behavior, and improve our understanding of, underlying barriers preventing people from behaving as pro-environmentally as they might wish,” said study co-author Dr. Mathew White of the Universities of Exeter and Vienna.

“Both brain function and climate change are highly complex areas. We need to start seeing them as interlinked, and to take action to protect our brains against the future realities of climate change, and start using our brains better to cope with what is already happening and prevent the worse-case scenarios.”

Study conclusion

“We outline how neuroscience can be used to: (1) investigate the negative impact of climate change on the human brain; (2) identify ways to adapt; (3) understand the neural substrates of decisions with pro-environmental and harmful outcomes; and (4) create neuroscience-based insights into communication and intervention strategies that aim to promote climate action,” wrote the study authors. 

“The paper is also a call to action for neuroscientists to join broader scientific efforts to tackle the existential environmental threats Earth is currently facing.”

The research is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

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