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Childhood Lead Exposure Reduces Brain’s Structural Integrity Later In Life: Study

New research highlights the potential effects of lead exposure, indicating that children with elevated blood lead levels may experience less brain structural integrity later in life.

In a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), researchers report lead exposure during childhood resulted in changes to the brain’s structure by midlife, which can be detected by a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan.

Duke University researchers used data from the Dunedin Study to track the lives of children born in 1972-73 in New Zealand until the age of 45. They looked for data of the subjects’ childhood blood lead levels, which were measured when the children were 11 years old.

The study involved MRI scans used to assess structural brain integrity through gray matter, white matter and other factors, such as cognitive function.

According to the findings, 997 of the 1,037 original test participants were still alive at age 45, of whom 564 had undergone lead testing at age 11. The data suggests each 5 micrograms per decaliter of childhood blood lead level was linked with smaller cortical surface area and other factors which indicated lower structural brain integrity.

In addition, the researchers also found that each 5 micrograms higher the lead exposure went was associated with a 2.07-point lower IQ score at age 45. However, they found no link with the lead levels and self-reported cognitive problems.

“In this longitudinal cohort study with a median 34-year follow-up, higher childhood blood lead level was associated with differences in some MRI measures of brain structure that suggested lower structural brain integrity in midlife,” the researchers concluded. However, they warned that the findings may be hindered by the large number of statistical comparisons the study required.

Lead poisoning is a serious health concern, which has affected some communities across the nation for decades. It can increase the risk of nervous system injury, brain damage, seizures, mental retardation, stunted growth, coma, and even death.

More than a half million children in the U.S. have lead blood levels that put them at risk for adverse health effects, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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