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Climate change affects the human brain

Climate change affects the human brain

More and more studies show that climate change is harmful to health. Especially nervousness. This increases, among other things, the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

MRI scan of a brain with Alzheimer's disease (right) and a healthy brain. – University of Cambridge/AFP

The basics in a nutshell

  • Climate change has far-reaching impacts. And also on people's health.
  • The brain is particularly vulnerable.
  • A new study shows that heat increases the risk of neurological diseases.

In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit New York City with full force. It not only caused material damage, but also claimed the lives of many people. But the devastating natural event also presented a unique research opportunity.

Cognitive neuroscientist Yuko Nomura was conducting a study on pregnant women in New York. She wanted to study the effect of stress on unborn children. But with the arrival of the storm, she was asked a new question. How does such an event affect pregnancy?

More than ten years later, she found her answers.

Children of the Storm are at high risk of developing mental illness

Children who were in the womb during Superstorm Sandy are now at disproportionate risk of mental illness. For example, girls who were exposed to a storm before giving birth were 20 times more likely to be anxious. Their risk of depression increased 30 times.

Boys had a 60-fold increased risk of ADHD and a 20-fold increased risk of conduct disorder. Symptoms of these conditions appear as early as preschool age. “Our results are very worrying,” says researcher Nomura.

Nomura's research joins a list of findings regarding the effects of climate change on our brains. Rising temperatures, extreme weather events, and increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere: all of these changes caused by fossil fuels affect our health.

Climate change makes us mentally slower

More and more neuroscientists are trying to establish links between the environment and neurological health. This field – called climate neuroepidemiology – is still in its early stages.

But it is already clear today that climate change is affecting our brains. You may also have noticed that your thinking becomes sluggish on humid days. This is not a coincidence, it is an almost universal phenomenon.

During the heat wave in Boston, USA, in the summer of 2016, epidemiologists from Harvard University demonstrated the effect of air conditioning in dormitories. Students without perform slower on standardized cognitive tests.

Climate change also has so-called neurodegenerative effects – this means that long-term exposure to heat can trigger several biochemical processes. These are associated with diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

“We don't think about it,” warns neuroscientist Burcin Ekiz. We are not preparing our health systems for this. “We do nothing in terms of prevention or protection.”

Expert calls for more research on climate change and the human brain

Brain researcher Nomura is also calling for more research in this area. She wants to understand how external environmental influences affect brain health and cognitive development; Who is most vulnerable to these influences and when; What preventive strategies can enhance neuroplasticity in the face of climate-related stressors.

Opinion poll

Are you concerned about global temperature records?

Yes, this is very disturbing.


No, this is normal.


By the way: climate change also has an impact on time. A study recently published in the journal Nature showed that the melting of the polar ice caps affects the Earth's rotation. Hence also our timekeeping.

More than half a century ago, subtle changes in the Earth's rotation gave rise to the concept of the “leap second.” Climate change makes the calculations more complex. In a few years it may be necessary to introduce the “negative leap second”. This would help keep the Earth's rotation in sync with Universal Time.