New Research Points to Mercury’s Long-term Effects
Wednesday, December 1, 2021
Methylmercury (MeHg) is a well-known neurotoxin that can impact brain development, particularly in utero. A series of new studies from researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) indicate that exposure may disrupt the early development of the connections between muscles and the brain, which could lead to motor control problems later in life.
MeHg enters in the environment in the form of industrial pollution and natural sources, settles in the oceans and is eventually absorbed in plants and other small organisms like plankton. Mercury bio-accumulates as it moves up the food chain and eventually reaches humans in the form of fish consumption, which is a major food source in many parts of the world.
Much of our understanding of the impact of mercury exposure comes from major 20th century industrial accidents in Japan and Iran, which poisoned thousands of people with high levels of mercury exposure. Many victims of these accidents exhibited a range of neurological symptoms similar to cerebral palsy, including muscle weakness and impaired motor control. While these accidents document the dangers of high levels of mercury, the long-term cumulative effects of exposure to smaller amounts are not well understood, especially during the important and vulnerable period of early development of the central nervous system.
The new studies – which come from the lab of Matthew Rand, Ph.D., with the URMC Department of Environmental Medicine and appear in the journals Neurotoxicology and Teratology and Toxicological Sciences – begin to shed light on the mechanism by which mercury may damage developing muscles and motor control.
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