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Low-level arsenic exposure can lead to brain changes
Researchers from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and the Indian Consortium on Vulnerability to Externalizing Disorders and Addictions (cVEDA) report new findings on the complex relationship between the environment and brain. In this section, they answer questions about their research findings.
What was the research question or scientific inquiry behind your study?
Arsenic is a toxin naturally occurring in soil and water, and can accumulate in crops, such as rice. Chronic high arsenic exposure can lead to skin diseases and increased cancer risk. Cognitive abnormalities have been sporadically described but never systematically recorded, especially with exposure to lower doses of arsenic. Since low-level arsenic exposure affects large parts of the population in some countries such as Argentina, Bangladesh, China, India or the USA, we have investigated the relationship between arsenic exposure, brain changes and behaviour.
How did you approach the topic?
We measured urinary arsenic concentrations in 1014 Indian children and adolescents, examined brain structure and function using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and assessed cognitive performance with neuropsychological tests. In addition, we assessed participants' nutrition and wealth by determining body mass index (BMI) and socioeconomic status (SES).
What did you discover?
We have discovered an association between increased arsenic exposure and decreased cognitive function, manifested by increased impulsivity, decreased concentration, and other behavioural abnormalities. These behavioural abnormalities were explained by changes in brain structure and function, particularly in the frontal lobe. The changes were dependent on BMI and SES; with good nutrition and better living conditions the risk of arsenic-dependent brain and behavioural changes can be reduced.
What surprised you?
Even low levels of arsenic exposure through dietary intake can have an impact on brain and behaviour.
What’s your takeaway?
Our research provides an important example of the complex relationship between environment, brain, and behaviour. It highlights the need for stricter limits of toxins, such as arsenic, to protect public health and the need to improve nutritional and socioeconomic conditions to mitigate harmful effects of arsenic exposure.
Vaidya N et al. Neurocognitive Analysis of Low-level Arsenic Exposure and Executive Function Mediated by Brain Anomalies Among Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults in India. JAMA Network Open. 2023 May 12. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2023.12810
Prof. Dr. Gunter Schumann
Center for Population Neuroscience and Stratified Medicine
Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin