Fish Tale: Autism and Mercury Link Debunked

Jul. 23, 2013

seychelles fishPregnant mothers in the Republic of the Seychelles eat on average 12 meals of fish a week and, consequently, the levels of mercury found in their bodies around the time they give birth are six to ten times higher than those found in the U.S.  

Given the fact that the FDA and many other organizations recommend moderation with respect to fish consumption during pregnancy because of the belief that the mercury found in the fish poses a risk to the developing brain, one would assume that children in the Seychelles would bear strong evidence of neurological disorders.  However, study after study has shown no adverse effects from this low level mercury exposure.

The latest research from the Seychelles Child Development Study – a 30 year collaboration between URMC, the Seychelles Ministries of Health and Education, and the University of Ulster in Ireland  that has followed thousands of mothers and children living on the islands that comprise the Indian Ocean nation – examined the link between the mercury levels in pregnant mothers and whether or not their children demonstrated autism-like behaviors. 

Using hair samples taken from the mothers around the time of birth, the research team – led by Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D. and Philip Davidson, Ph.D. – was able to establish the levels of mercury to which the unborn children were exposed.  They then painstakingly tracked down each child and had their parents or teachers fill out surveys commonly used in the U.S. to screen for behavioral disorders.   The result: no link between mercury exposure and autism-like behaviors.

These findings contribute to a growing body of research indicating that the benefits from the nutrients found in fish – particularly those that support brain development – outweigh the risks.   You can read more about the study here.