Children Lead Exposure Changes Brain's White Matter

Monday, October 12, 2009

A study of adults who were exposed to lead prenatally and during childhood has uncovered changes one of the main components of the central nervous system. 

The changes in the white matter of the brain were greatest for those who had the highest blood lead levels throughout childhood, according to the study, which is published in the advance, online edition of the journal NeuroToxicology.

“These findings add to the understanding of how lead alters brain development and present a detailed assessment to supplement the known, adverse behavioral effects of childhood lead exposure,” says Kim M. Cecil, PhD, a research scientist in the Imaging Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s and the study’s principal investigator.

Dr. Cecil and her research colleagues at Cincinnati Children’s and the University of Cincinnati conducted MRIs on 91 adults between the ages of 20 and 26.  Researchers have followed this group of adults as part of the Cincinnati Lead Study since their exposure to lead before birth and through childhood.

Participant blood lead levels were obtained at birth and throughout childhood up to age 7. Most of the study participants had an average childhood blood lead level of 13 micrograms per deciliter. Such levels would be considered moderately elevated by today’s standards. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization consider a blood lead level of 10 micrograms per deciliter or above a cause for concern.  Research shows, however, that there is no known safe lead exposure level.

Using a sensitive, microscopic imaging technique, Dr. Cecil and her colleagues observed a decrease in the way in which water is diffused in the white matter – evidence of a “general measure of disorganization within the specific areas of white matter,” says Dr. Cecil. 

About Cincinnati Children’s

Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center is one of 10 children’s hospitals in the United States to make the Honor Roll in U.S. News and World Reports 2009-10 Americas Best Children’s Hospitals issue. It is #1 ranked for digestive disorders and is also highly ranked for its expertise in respiratory diseases, cancer, neonatal care, heart care, neurosurgery, diabetes, orthopedics, kidney disorders and urology. One of the three largest children’s hospitals in the U.S., Cincinnati Children’s is affiliated with the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and is one of the top two recipients of pediatric research grants from the National Institutes of Health.

President Barack Obama in June 2009 cited Cincinnati Children’s as an island of excellence in health care. For its achievements in transforming health care, Cincinnati Children’s is one of six U.S. hospitals since 2002 to be awarded the American Hospital Association-McKesson Quest for Quality Prize for leadership and innovation in quality, safety and commitment to patient care. The hospital is a national and international referral center for complex cases. Additional information can be found at

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