Martinez-Vilavella G, Pujol J, Blanco-Hinojo L, Deus J, Rivas I, Persavento C, Sunyer J, Foraster M. The effects of exposure to road traffic noise at school on central auditory pathway functional connectivity. Environ Res. 2023 Jun 1;226:115574. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2023.115574

As the world becomes more urbanized, more people become exposed to traffic and the risks associated with a higher exposure to road traffic noise increase. Excessive exposure to environmental noise could potentially interfere with functional maturation of the auditory brain in developing individuals. The aim of the present study was to assess the association between exposure to annual average road traffic noise (LAeq) in schools and functional connectivity of key elements of the central auditory pathway in schoolchildren. A total of 229 children from 34 representative schools in the city of Barcelona with ages between 8 and 12 years (49.2% girls) were evaluated. LAeq was obtained as the mean of 2-consecutive day measurements inside classrooms before lessons started following standard procedures to obtain an indicator of long-term road traffic noise levels. A region-of-interest functional connectivity Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) approach was adopted. Functional connectivity maps were generated for the inferior colliculus, medial geniculate body of the thalamus and primary auditory cortex as key levels of the central auditory pathway. Road traffic noise in schools was significantly associated with stronger connectivity between the inferior colliculus and a bilateral thalamic region adjacent to the medial geniculate body, and with stronger connectivity between the medial geniculate body and a bilateral brainstem region adjacent to the inferior colliculus. Such a functional connectivity strengthening effect did not extend to the cerebral cortex. The anatomy of the association implicating subcortical relays suggests that prolonged road traffic noise exposure in developing individuals may accelerate maturation in the basic elements of the auditory pathway. Future research is warranted to establish whether such a faster maturation in early pathway levels may ultimately reduce the developing potential in the whole auditory system.

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