Although environmental lead exposure is associated with significant deficits in cognition, executive functions, social behaviors, and motor abilities, the neuroanatomical basis for these impairments remains poorly understood. In this study, we examined the relationship between childhood lead exposure and adult brain volume using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We also explored how volume changes correlate with historic neuropsychological assessments.
Methods and Findings
Volumetric analyses of whole brain MRI data revealed significant decreases in brain volume associated with childhood blood lead concentrations. Using conservative, minimum contiguous cluster size and statistical criteria (700 voxels, unadjusted p < 0.001), approximately 1.2% of the total gray matter was significantly and inversely associated with mean childhood blood lead concentration. The most affected regions included frontal gray matter, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Areas of lead-associated gray matter volume loss were much larger and more significant in men than women. We found that fine motor factor scores positively correlated with gray matter volume in the cerebellar hemispheres; adding blood lead concentrations as a variable to the model attenuated this correlation.
Childhood lead exposure is associated with region-specific reductions in adult gray matter volume. Affected regions include the portions of the prefrontal cortex and ACC responsible for executive functions, mood regulation, and decision-making. These neuroanatomical findings were more pronounced for males, suggesting that lead-related atrophic changes have a disparate impact across sexes. This analysis suggests that adverse cognitive and behavioral outcomes may be related to lead's effect on brain development producing persistent alterations in structure. Using a simple model, we found that blood lead concentration mediates brain volume and fine motor function.
Using magnetic resonance imaging to assess brain volumes, Kim Cecil and colleagues find that inner-city children with higher blood lead levels showed regions of decreased gray matter as adults.
Lead is a highly toxic metal that is present throughout the environment because of various human activities. In particular, for many years, large amounts of lead were used in paint, in solder for water pipes, in gasoline, and in ceramic glazes. But, as the harmful health effects of lead have become clear, its use in these and other products has been gradually phased out. Breathing air, drinking water, or eating food that contains lead can damage almost every organ in the human body. The organ that is most sensitive to lead exposure is the brain, and children's brains are particularly vulnerable because they are still developing. Children who swallow large amounts of lead can develop widespread brain damage that causes convulsions and sometimes death. Children who are repeatedly exposed to low to moderate amounts of lead (e.g., through accidentally swallowing residues of old lead paint or contaminated soil) can develop learning or behavioral problems.
Why Was This Study Done?
Lead exposure has been linked with various types of brain damage. These include problems with thinking (cognition); difficulties with organizing actions, decisions, and behaviors (executive functions); abnormal social behavior (including aggression); and difficulties in coordinating fine movements, such as picking up small objects (fine motor control). However, we know little about how lead damages the brain in this way and little about which brain regions are affected by exposure to low to moderate levels of lead during childhood. In this study, the researchers wanted to test the possibility that childhood lead exposure might lead to shrinking (“volume loss”) parts of the brain, particularly the parts that are crucial to cognition and behavior. They therefore studied the relationship between childhood lead exposure and adult brain volume. They also explored whether there is a relationship between brain volume and measures of brain functioning, such as fine motor control, memory, and learning assessed during adolescence.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
Between 1979 and 1984, the researchers recruited babies born in poor areas of Cincinnati, where there were many old, lead-contaminated houses, into the Cincinnati Lead Study. They measured their blood lead levels regularly from birth until they were 78 months old and calculated each child's average blood lead level over this period. They then used brain scans (known as magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI) to measure the brain volumes of the participants when they were 19–24 years old. The researchers found that exposure to lead as a child was linked with brain volume loss in adulthood, particularly in men. There was a “dose-response” effect—in other words, the greatest brain volume loss was seen in participants with the greatest lead exposure in childhood. The brain volume loss was most noticeable in a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex—especially a region called the “anterior cingulate cortex.” When they examined the relationship between brain volume and measures of brain functioning, they found a link between brain volume and fine motor control, but not with the other measures.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings indicate that childhood lead exposure is associated with brain volume loss in adults, in specific regions of the brain. These brain regions are responsible for executive functions, regulating behavior, and fine motor control. Lead exposure has a larger effect on brain volumes in men than in women, which might help to explain the higher incidence of antisocial behaviors among men than women. Overall, these findings may explain why children and adults who have a history of lead exposure have behavioral and other problems, and support ongoing efforts to reduce childhood lead exposure in the US and other countries.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0050112.
A PLoS Medicine Perspective article by David Bellinger further discusses this study and a related paper on child exposure to lead and criminal arrests in adulthood
Toxtown, an interactive site from the US National Library of Medicine, provides information on environmental health concerns including exposure to lead (in English and Spanish)
The US Environmental Protection Agency provides information on lead in paint, dust, and soil and on protecting children from lead poisoning (in English and Spanish)
Medline Plus and the US National Library of Medicine Specialized Information Services provide lists of links to information on lead and human health (in English and Spanish)
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information about its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
The UK Health Protection Agency also provides information about lead and its health hazards