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Brain. 1998 Oct;121 ( Pt 10):1903-17.

Neurological and cognitive abnormalities associated with chronic petrol sniffing.

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Swinburne University of Technology, Mental Health Research Institute of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.


Substance abuse through the deliberate inhalation of petrol (petrol sniffing or gasoline sniffing) is prevalent in inner-urban and remote rural communities. Although acute toxic encephalopathy is a well-documented consequence of petrol sniffing, the neurological and cognitive effects of chronic petrol sniffing are unknown. A structured neurological examination and the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB) were used to assess neurological and cognitive function in 33 current-sniffers (individuals who had sniffed petrol for >6 months), 30 ex-sniffers (individuals who had sniffed petrol in the past but had abstained for 6 months) and 34 matched non-sniffers (individuals who had never sniffed petrol). No subject was, or had been, encephalopathic from petrol sniffing and all were residing in their community. Blood lead and hydrocarbon levels and information about petrol sniffing behaviour were obtained from each subject. When compared with non-sniffers, current-sniffers showed higher rates of abnormal tandem gait, rapid alternating hand movements, finger to nose movements, postural tremor, bilateral palmomental reflexes and brisk deep reflexes. Cognitive deficits occurred in the areas of visual attention, visual recognition memory and visual paired associate learning. Ex-petrol sniffers showed higher rates of abnormal tandem gait and bilateral palmomental reflexes and cognitive deficits in the areas of visual recognition memory and pattern-location paired associate learning. Blood lead levels and length of time of petrol sniffing correlated significantly with the magnitude of neurological and cognitive deficits. Blood hydrocarbon levels were not related to neurocognitive deficits, although this may have been due to methodological difficulties in obtaining hydrocarbon levels. These results suggest that subtle neurological and cognitive abnormalities do occur in individuals who abuse petrol but who do not have acute toxic encephalopathy and that the severity of these abnormalities is reduced with abstinence.

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