07 August 2019

Contact with green spaces in cities shown to benefit people with brain pattern linked to risk of depression and anxiety

This press release is issued by the European College of Neuropsychopharmacology (ECNP), to highlight important work recently published in Nature Neuroscience. Professor Meyer-Lindenberg is on the ECNP Executive Committee.

New research shows that exposure to green areas in cities improves mood, especially in people showing brain activity associated with risk of depression and anxiety. Scans also show that the brains of those benefitting most from urban green space show less activity in brain areas associated with negative emotion. These people tend to live in areas with higher incidence of mental disorders which have less green space. Given that by 2050, two thirds of the global population are expected to live in cities, this may have significant implications on how we design our cities to cope with the increasing epidemic of metal disorders. This research was recently published by Nature Neuroscience (see below).

German Researchers developed smartphone, sensor and GPS-based systems which followed a group of 85 healthy young adults as they moved around the city. At certain points (roughly 10 times per day), the smartphone asked them to register how they felt in the last 5 minutes. This allowed the researchers to correlate well-being with direct exposure to nearby green space. After a week of tracking, 52 of the volunteers then underwent MRI brain scans, to measure neural response to negative emotional pictures (such as angry faces).

They found that closeness to more green space strongly increased well-being in city dwellers and that those participants who had shown most benefit, also had a reduced activity in regulatory frontal brain areas during negative emotion processing. These reduced activities are also found in people who are anxious and at risk of depression and anxiety.

According to researcher Professor Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg (University of Mannheim), “We were able to show that these participants tended to be found in socially deprived areas of town where more people with mental illness are found. Interestingly, those parts of the city also contain significantly less green space. These findings underscore the value of urban green space as a protective factor for mental health”.

“We know that city life increases the risk of mental illness, but little is known about features of the urban environments that can help protect against this detrimental effect. Poor mental health is becoming an ever more serious problem, and as people are flocking to cities, we need to consider whether good urban design can help improve mental health. We’re currently working with city planners and architects to find out how to distribute nature access optimally and equitably in order to improve mental health in an urban environment” added Professor Heike Tost, (University of Mannheim), first author of the paper.

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