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Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 1996 Aug;139(2):374-86.

Behavioral consequences of in utero exposure to mercury vapor: alterations in lever-press durations and learning in squirrel monkeys.

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Department of Psychology, Auburn University, Alabama 36849, USA.


Exposure to mercury vapor in utero results in the accumulation of mercury in the cerebellum, hippocampus, and other regions of the nervous system associated with motor function and learning, but little is known about the functional consequences of prenatal exposure. The offspring of pregnant squirrel monkeys exposed to 0.5 or 1.0 mg/m3 of mercury vapor during the last 2/3 or more of gestation were studied. Median maternal blood levels ranged from 0.025 to 0.18 microgram/g and exposures were estimated to range from 20 to 62 micrograms/day, with cumulative doses of 1304 to 4305 micrograms. Unexposed monkeys born at about the same time served as controls. The monkeys' lever pressing was maintained under various Concurrent Random-Interval Random-Interval schedules of reinforcement. Time allocation on each lever was examined during behavioral transitions and in steady state. No difference in sensitivity to reinforcer ratios was identified in steady state, but there was much more variability in the steady-state performance of exposed monkeys, as indicated by the standard deviation of the regression, than in controls. Logistic regression was used to examine the transition to new schedule parameters. Exposed monkeys were found to produce smaller or slower transitions than controls. The magnitude and stability of lever-press durations for controls and exposed monkeys were indistinguishable early in the experiment, but at the end the exposed monkeys had longer lever-press durations and the session-to-session variability was much greater. One monkey's exposure began during the third week of gestation (earlier than any of the others) and the behavior of this monkey was so erratic that some of the analyses could not be accomplished. Long-term effects of prenatal mercury vapor exposure included instability in lever-press durations and steady-state performance under concurrent schedules of reinforcement as well as aberrant transitions. The levels used were close to those reported in occupational settings under conditions of poor hygiene, but were at least 10- to 50-fold greater than those more commonly reported.

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