Architectural Neuroimmunology: Do buildings impact the brain via the immune system?
By 2050, it is projected that two-thirds of the global population will live in cities (UN, 2018). Already it is estimated that residents in developed nations spend over 90% of their time in or around the built environment ( Schweizer et al. 2007 ). However, there is still remarkably little known about the impact of architectural form on the human body. In response, this research project, conducted at the University of Cambridge, endeavored to combine emerging insights from the disparate fields of architectural neuroscience and neuroimmunology. The following post will outline the objectives of the emerging field of architectural neuroimmunology and highlight some of the project's initial findings.
What we know
Over the last decade, a growing body of scholarship has begun to explore the impact of architectural design on human wellness and health. This research has primarily assessed the effect of more directly quantifiable factors, such as light exposure (Bellia & Fragliasso, 2021; Osibona et al., 2021), noise levels (Altomonte et al., 2020; Spence, 2020), air pollution (Cedeño- Laurent et al., 2018; de Prado Bert et al., 2018), water quality (Ling et al., 2018; Rhoads et al., 2016), and ambient temperature (Lomas & Porritt, 2017; Zhang et al., 2019). Aided by advances in our understanding of the clinical biomarkers required to measure neurological activity, these researchers have begun to expand into the field of neuroscience (dePaiva & Jedon, 2019). Early evidence suggests that buildings that reflect or imitate natural forms (also known as biophilic design) may reduce physiological stress in the body (Salingaros, 2019; Zhong et al., 2021).
What we don’t know
However, the significance of these findings may be greater than previously understood. There is evidence from the field of neuroimmunology that strongly suggests a causal relationship between physiological stress and neuroinflammation (Calcia et al., 2016). Neuroinflammation, in turn, has been implicated in the development of multiple neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders (Chen et al., 2016; Harrison, 2017). In essence, those factors that impact our stress levels may also cause increased neuroinflammation and, in turn, increase the likelihood of developing particular illnesses.
Despite these findings, to date, no studies have directly examined the relationship between biophilic architectural design and neuroinflammation. In response, this research project investigated the relationship between visual exposure to biophilic architectural design and neuroinflammation and asked the questions:
- How can we assess the impact of biophilic design on neuroinflammation?
- Do biophilic design features impact neuroinflammation?
This study hypothesised that increased visual exposure to biophilic design would decrease neuroinflammatory activity.
Methods and progress
Measuring the built environment's impact on human health and wellness is not an easy task. Numerous confounding social, environmental, and physiological factors mediate neuroimmunological stress responses. With this in mind, this study attempted first to assess the impact of short-term exposure to biophilic design on participants' neuroinflammatory responses using a 32-channel Bitbrain Versatile qEEG . During the course of the study, participants were exposed to images of two buildings. The buildings' respective levels of biophilia were assessed using a quantitative index. Changes in neuroinflammatory activity were then evaluated by measuring changes in the participants' levels of neurological activity across specific frequency bands, with particular consideration given to bands associated with the neuroinflammatory activity. Following the data collection process, a custom EEGLab protocol designed and programmed by Steffert and Steinfath (2022) was applied to process and clean the raw collected EEG data. This processing protocol played a critical role in the analysis process, producing datasets suitable for statistical analysis. A statistical analysis of the data was conducted after controlling for handedness, sex at birth, and age.
De Kroon Building
Hyperion City Building
While the full results of this study are not available while publication is pending, I can report that statistically significant changes were observed in relative delta and relative gamma power activity when participants were exposed to higher levels of biophilic architecture design. Given the association of relative delta power and relative gamma power wave activity with neuroinflammatory activity (Buchanan et al., 2021; Iznak et al., 2021; Semmler et al., 2008; Woodward et al., 2020), these early pilot findings suggest that biophilic design features may mediate neuroinflammatory responses. More specifically, changes in relative delta power activity have been associated with the activation of microglial cells and increased cytokine activity (Semmler et al., 2008; Woodward et al., 2020), which are intimately connected with the development of neurodegenerative and psychiatric conditions (Bachiller et al., 2018). These findings may prove consequential for public health initiatives, as neuroinflammation has been implicated in the development of multiple neurodegenerative and psychiatric disorders. However, extensive future research is required to corroborate these early pilot findings.
What would this mean for how we build?
Although neuroinflammation is not yet well understood, it has been implicated in a variety of pathologies, including several psychiatric conditions such as depression (Torres-Platas et al., 2014), anxiety (Frick et al., 2013), schizophrenia (van Berckel et al., 2008), and neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Herrera et al., 2015; Kwon & Kho, 2020). In 2019, an estimated one in six people suffered from a neurodegenerative condition in the United Kingdom alone (Neurological Alliance, 2019). Although these conditions may arise due to multiple aetiologies, the findings from this study suggest that visual exposure to biophilic design may contribute to reductions in neuroinflammatory activity. If this is true, architects may play an important role in the creation of environments that enhance human well-being.
Future research is needed in several areas. First, although initial research has begun to identify frequency band activity associated with neuroinflammation ( Balter et al., 2019 ), future research is needed to identify additional non-invasive clinical biomarkers of neuroinflammation. Second, further empirical research is required to comprehensively understand the particular architectural features that impact neuroinflammatory responses. Controlled studies which isolate individual architectural features and test their respective impacts on neuroinflammatory responses would greatly advance the field of architectural neuroimmunology and provide more practical guidance for architects and spatial designers. Third, given the inherent complexity of neuroinflammation, future research could attempt to disentangle how, if at all, individual stressors interact with one another to create cumulative or net effects. Lastly, and perhaps most interestingly, a follow-up project is already underway at the University of Cambridge, designed to consider the corollary of this research, namely whether exposure to non-biophilic design is detrimental to human health.
The impact of architectural form on neuroimmunological responses has not yet been explored. This is perhaps because, historically, architecture has appeared to be largely outside the realm of public health (Perdue et al., 2003). As a result, while no architectural health research has examined the impacts of architectural design on neuroimmunology, the same is true of neuroimmunology in that no immunological research has considered the impacts of architectural design.
Cleo Valentine is a systems designer, neuroarchitectural researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge . Her interdisciplinary research examines the relationship between architectural form and neuroimmunology. Cleo received her MPhil in Architecture and Urban Studies from the University of Cambridge, before which she earned her MSc in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford and received her Bachelor’s in Urban Systems and Economics from McGill University and the University of Copenhagen. She has worked as a computational systems designer at Open Systems Lab (formerly Wikihouse) and has held positions as the Neuroaesthetics Fellow at The Centre for Conscious Design and as a guest tutor at the Royal College of Art and the Architecture Association in London. She is currently an associate at Cambridge Architectural Research Ltd. where she provides consultancy services on public health and architecture.
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