A study conducted using MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany, has investigated the relationship between the availability of nature near city dwellers' homes and their brain health. Its findings are relevant for urban planners among others.
"Research on brain plasticity supports the assumption that the environment can shape brain structure and function. That is why we are interested in the environmental conditions that may have positive effects on brain development. Studies of people in the countryside have already shown that living close to nature is good for their mental health and well-being. We therefore decided to examine city dwellers," explains first author Simone Kühn, who led the study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and now works at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE).
For the study Kühn and her team looked at 341 adults aged 61 to 82. The participants were asked to complete memory and reasoning tests and undergo MRI scans to assess the structure of stress-processing brain regions, especially the amygdala.
The amygdala performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making, and emotional reactions.
The researchers found a relationship between place of residence and brain health: those city dwellers living close to a forest were more likely to show indications of a physiologically healthy amygdala structure and were therefore presumably better able to cope with stress. This effect remained stable when differences in educational qualifications and income levels were controlled for. However, it was not possible to find an association between the examined brain regions and urban green, water, or wasteland. With these data, it is not possible to distinguish whether living close to a forest really has positive effects on the amygdala or whether people with a healthier amygdala might be more likely to select residential areas close to a forest. Based on present knowledge, however, the researchers regard the first explanation as more probable. Further longitudinal studies are necessary to accumulate evidence.
"Our study investigates the connection between urban planning features and brain health for the first time," says co-author Ulman Lindenberger, Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.
By 2050, almost 70 percent of the world population is expected to be living in cities. These results could therefore be very important for urban planning. In the near future, however, the observed association between the brain and closeness to forests would need to be confirmed in further studies and other cities, stated Ulman Lindenberger
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