New Studies Explore Impact of Mercury on the Brain

Jan. 21, 2015

fishTwo new studies suggest that fatty acids, genetics, and even coffee may influence whether or not mercury has a toxic effect on the brain. 

The FDA currently advises pregnant women to limit fish consumption out of a concern that the mercury found in fish may pose a health risk to their unborn children.  At the same time, it is known that fish contain nutrients that are important for brain development and this conundrum has contributed to a long-running debate over the risk vs. benefit of consuming fish during pregnancy. 

The first study, which appears in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is based on more than three decades of research in the Seychelles, where people consume fish at a rate 10 times greater than in the U.S.   The study tracked the levels of mercury and different forms of fatty acids present in mothers during their pregnancy. 

At 20 months of age, their children underwent a battery of tests that assessed their communication skills, behavior, and motor skills and found no association between mercury exposure and developmental problems.

Furthermore, the researchers – led by Edwin van Wijngaarden, Ph.D., Philip Davidson, Ph.D., and Gary Myers, M.D. – found that certain fatty acids found in fish, specifically omega 3, may shield the brain from the potential harm of mercury.  In fact, the children whose mothers had higher levels of omega 3 relative to another form of fatty acids more commonly found in Western diets did better on some of the tests. 

You can read more about the Seychelles study here.

Another study explores the question of whether or not some people are more susceptible to the toxic effects of mercury. A genetic analysis of 200 unique strains of fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) is helping UR scientists to identify and understand the variability.

Matthew D. Rand, Ph.D., assistant professor of Environmental Medicine, recently published a study in the journal PLOS ONE not only showing that genetics play a role in mercury toxicity, but also that caffeine lessened the effects of mercury exposure in the fruit fly strains. Rand is collaborating with the team of researches involved in the Seychelles study.

For more information, click here. For the full study in PLOS ONE, click here.