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Better air = better brains: Study shows cognitive function improves when indoor ventilation improves

cloud2Reducing carbon dioxide and other pollutants in the air can have a profound impact on decision-making, according to a research team from Upstate, Harvard and Syracuse universities.

The team‘s study shows that people working in “green” offices, with good ventilation and below-average levels of carbon dioxide and indoor air pollution, had significantly better cognitive functioning than when working in conventional offices. They say their results can apply to indoor environments including schools and homes.

Usha Satish, PhD

Usha Satish, PhD

Over six full workdays, 24 volunteers were exposed to different indoor environmental quality conditions and then given cognitive assessments that tested nine key cognitive domains that are important for productive functioning in the real world. They were presented with real-world challenges and allowed to strategize and take initiatives in their own unique styles using the Strategic Management Simulation, says Usha Satish, PhD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Upstate who is an expert in this form of evaluation and one of the research team investigators.

She says the simulation tool is well established and valuable because “it gives participants the freedom to make decisions based on their own cognitive styles and is reflective of their performance in the real world.”

The cognitive scores of the volunteers were an average 61 percent higher on the days spent in the green buildings. Their scores doubled when they spent the day in an “enhanced green environment,” with improved ventilation and an optimized indoor environment.

Satish points out that the assessments did not measure intelligence levels, instead focusing on real decision making as it relates to productivity.

John Mandyck, chief sustainability officer for United Technologies, which supported the research, says “we know green buildings conserve natural resources, minimize environmental impacts and improve the indoor environment, but these results show they can also become important human resource tools for all indoor environments where cognitive abilities are critical to productivity, learning and safety.”

The study was published in October in the journal of Environmental Health Perspectives. It generated news coverage from newspapers and websites worldwide.

Layout 1 finalThis article appears in the spring 2016 issue of Upstate Health magazine.