Recent research on the effects of traffic jam on human brain have raised some grave concerns. Regular commuters and people living in urban or crowded areas are close to the sound and air pollution that is generated by congestion. This prolonged proximity and exposure gravely impacts physical and mental health, sometimes even leading to DNA alteration. Essentially, traffic exposes the human body to sound and air pollution. This exposure and its impacts, are concentrated due to the proximity to traffic. The impact can be three-fold:
  • Physical Effect: As always, physical health is the first to be affected. A wide range of ailments, varying from common flu, cough and cold to cancers and permanent ailments are experienced.
  • Mental Health: Along with the physical health, the noise and air pollution can also affect a person's mental health. A wide spectrum of ailments ranging from common irritation and fatigue to significant disorders is observed.
  • DNA and Gene Alteration: Shocking results from researches have indicated that components of air pollution, produced by traffic jams, are capable of not just entering the body but also altering one's DNA, which can result into mental and psychological problems or permanent ailments in the future generations.
Essentially, traffic impacts almost the entire body. However, here we shall be focusing on the effects that it has on the brain. Again, there can be two categories: one, the effect on the brain and two, the effect on the DNA, which affects the brain of the same and the next generations. Both the types of effects are equally bad.

1. Effects on Brain

Minor impacts of exposure to traffic are known for quite a long time. However, recent studies have indicated some very grave implications, some of them having long-term effects.
  • Deterioration of Mental Capabilities: Scientists in Netherlands have drawn a conclusion that a time period of as short as 90 days, is sufficient to alter the DNA of people. 30 minutes of exposure to traffic induced fumes leads to intensification of electrical activity in the brain. This may lead to alteration and deterioration of behavior and personality and in some cases deterioration of logic and decision-making, high levels of stress cannot be ruled out.
  • Alzheimer's, Memory and Parkinson's: In similar circumstances, elderly people who were exposed to risks reported, logic, reasoning and memory problems. Researchers in Boston have signified the probability of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's for the elderly. Fumes, exhaust and particulates within the pollutants is the probable cause for inflammation of certain parts of the brain and which can lead to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
  • Carbon Monoxide Induced Problems: Among the adults who drive regularly, exposure and inhalation of carbon monoxide can result into some significant psychological problems (plus health related problems). Carbon monoxide once inhaled, goes through the lungs and binds itself to the hemoglobin. This reduces the volume of oxygen that reach the heart and brain, thereby significantly affecting the function of the brain and reflexes of the remaining body. The presence of carbon monoxide and lack of oxygen significantly jeopardizes a person's judgment and reflex reactions. In such a scenario, stress, anxiety and instant fear cannot be ruled out. When a person is exposed to more concentrated form of carbon monoxide, mental alertness, capacities, stress handling capacity and patience often get reduced, which in some cases can prove to be rather harmful.
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder: Psychologists have attributed road rage to be a momentary instance of anger or an effect of Intermittent Explosive Disorder (extreme expressions of anger). Whatever maybe the cause, road rage is unhealthy outbursts of anger when in a traffic congestion. In some cases in fact, it might be also perfectly natural (psychologically), though not proper and should be avoided.
  • Traffic Stress Syndrome: The Traffic Stress Syndrome is a kind of syndrome, wherein drivers who suffer from it get scared to the slow craw of the traffic jam. In cases where such drivers either see or experience a slow built of traffic congestion, hit the panic button and go into a frenzy of panic modes, known as 'time-bomb phenomena'. In such a situation, the driver will drive recklessly and without a shred of judgment or safety concern to get as fast and as far away from any kind of traffic, due to the fact that he or she is scared of getting trapped in a traffic jam. It's a panic and flee mechanism. Some physical symptoms include, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, headaches and nausea.
  • Neuroplasticity Related Disorders: Neuroplasticity is the phenomenon and ability of the brain and the nervous system to function in accordance with change, change structurally and adjust and respond properly to the surroundings. Exposure to traffic jams also means being exposed to huge volumes of air pollutants, which includes anything and everything from small particles of carbon, metals and fibers to monoxides and hydrocarbons. Almost all have an effect in some or the other way on the human brain, and also mammal brains such as the ones of dogs. Neurons are the nerve cells which communicate the impulse of the central nervous system. Air pollution significantly deteriorates the blood-brain barrier, cerebral cortex and glial cells, all of which can cause severe long-term disorders. Air pollution exposure due to traffic also tends to have a severe impact on IQ of small children. Apart from the low IQ, brain lesions were also observed. Particulates, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, all which are found in traffic induced pollution are known to have increased the risk of epilepsy in the general population.
It must be noted that young children are also likely to suffer from some of the aforementioned problems.

2. Effects on Unborn Children

Unborn children, infants and young children are at higher risk level than the remaining society. In circumstances where traffic induced pollution affects the DNA, the following impacts have been observed.
  • DNA Alteration: This is the most debated category of people exposed to traffic related risks. Scientists and researchers have come to conclusions that parents of unborn children pass down disturbed DNA to their children, when they are continuously exposed to traffic jams and similar surroundings for a time period which is as short as 90 days. The potential damage and origination of risk starts even before the young one is born, or conceived.
  • Autism: The risk of the brain getting affected is also observed during fetal development stage and during pregnancy. In a study conducted by Heather Volk, USC's Keck School of Medicine, a survey was conducted, of mothers, expecting mothers and children, living within 1,000 feet of a Los Angeles freeway. The findings were scary. Irrespective of traits such as age, gender, educational or family background, the children face double the risk of suffering from Autism.
  • Deterioration of Neurons: Furthermore, microscopic particles, which are often as small as one-thousandth the width (or diameter) of a human hair were found to be inhaled by lab mice. These particles, once inside the body caused inflammation, altered and affected neurochemistry and certain neurons, both in humans and mice. These neurons were principally responsible for memory, learning and grasping.
  • Progressive Impacts: In 1998, in order to resolve the mystery of the effects and link between traffic jams and brains of unborn children, infants and kids, Dr. Frederica Perera of Columbia University's Center for Children's Environmental Health with the help of hundreds of expecting moms and air monitors analyzed the nature of air that was taken in. In subsequent months, one by one as the babies were born, the team conducted further tests and discovered some mortifying facts. It was discovered that high concentrates of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (sometimes accompanied by carbon monoxide) which are found in almost all traffic induced fumes, imprint a certain biochemical mark on the DNA, especially during the prenatal stages. Furthermore, by the age 3, these children who suffered from the said imprint had slow developing mental capacities (in comparison to the ones who were free of the mark). The slow development though fractional and very, minimal, was noticed. In subsequent 2 years, it was observed that these children, on an average had a score lower by 4 points, in standard intelligence tests. At about the age of 7, children who suffered from the said mark, also displayed anxiety, depression and unexplained attention problems.
Sound Pollution
Effects on Mental Health
  • Annoyance and Somnipathy (sleep disturbance)
  • Chronically high levels of Cortisol and Adrenaline (Epinephrine) Hormones
  • Stress
  • Fatigue and Headaches
Effects on DNA
  • No significant effect on DNA or Genes
Air Pollution
Effects on Mental Health
  • Neuroplastic Impact (Impact on Nervous System)
  • Impact on Blood-Brain Barrier, Cerebral Cortex and Glial Cells
  • Lowered on IQ
  • Increased risk of Epilepsy
  • Impact on Reasoning, Logic and Decision-making
  • Risk of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
  • Loss of Judgment, Mental Alertness, Patience
  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Traffic Stress Syndrome and Road Rage
  • Stress, Anxiety and Fear
  • Headaches, Loss or Deterioration of certain Mental Capacities and Fatigue
  • Deterioration of Neurochemistry and Neurons
Effects on DNA
  • Deterioration of Behavior and Personality (observed in the generation which is actually exposed to the pollution)
  • Higher Risk of Autism and Learning Disorders
  • Slow or Hindered Development of Mental and Learning Abilities
  • Deterioration of Neurochemistry and Neurons
  • Lower score on Intelligence Tests
  • Anxiety, Depression and Unexplained Attention Problems

It must be noted that the level to which the fumes and traffic related risks affect us does differ, from case to case. The ones who are lucky may not be affected at all. It might also happen that we may not get affected at all, and the sheer ignorance may prove to be harmful for subsequent generations, either by DNA alteration or by direct exposure. Apart from that, it must be noted that several other features and facts remain unexplained. The brain is a very crucial organ and we need to care of it just as it takes our care. Hence, instead of jeopardizing the health of the generations to come, we can come up with the next simple solutions, bicycles, horses and may be battery or fuel cell cars, hopefully in near future.