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Neurotoxicology. 1996 Spring;17(1):157-67.

Evidence of early nervous system dysfunction in Amazonian populations exposed to low-levels of methylmercury.

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Centre pour l'étude des interactions biologiques, Université du Québecà Montréal, Canada.


There is increasing concern about the potential neurotoxic effects of exposure to methylmercury in Amazonian populations due to mercury (Hg) release from gold-mining activities. A preliminary study was undertaken in two villages on the Tapajos River, an effluent of the Amazon, situated over 200 km downstream from the extraction areas. The study population included 29 young adults (< or = 35 years), 14 women and 15 men, randomly chosen from a previous survey. Hair analyses were conducted with cold vapor atomic fluorescence spectrophotometry. Total hair Hg (THg) varied between 5.6 micrograms/g and 38.4 micrograms/gl, with MeHg levels from 72.2% to 93.3% of the THg. A quantitative behavioural neurophysiological test battery, designed for use under standard conditions, in an area without electricity and for persons with minimal education was administered to all participants. The results of visual testing showed that although all participants had good near and far visual acuity, color discrimination capacity (Lanthony D-15 desaturated panel) decreased with increasing THg (F = 4.1; p = 0.05); near visual contrast sensitivity profiles (Vistech 6000) and peripheral visual field profiles (Goldman Perimetry with Targets I and V) were reduced for those with the highest levels of THg. For the women, manual dexterity (Santa Ana, Helsinki version) decreased with increasing THg (F = 16.7; p < 0.01); this was not the case for the men. Although the women showed a tendency towards reduced grip strength, muscular fatigue did not vary with THg for either sex. The findings of this study demonstrate that it is possible, using a sensitive test battery, to detect alterations in nervous system functions, consistent with knowledge on Hg toxicity, at levels below the currently recognized threshold of 50 micrograms/g THg.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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