Research suggests mercury linked to dementia

Nov 16, 2010
Research suggests mercury linked to dementia
New research by Northeastern professor Richard Deth suggests that long-term exposure to mercury may produce Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in people. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

New research by Northeastern University professor Richard Deth and academic colleagues in Germany suggests that long-term exposure to mercury may produce Alzheimer’s-like symptoms in people.

Deth also discovered a probable biological mechanism through which mercury can destroy neurological brain function in humans.

The findings were reported this month in a study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease.

The team of researchers conducted a literature review of more than 100 experimental and clinical studies on mercury exposure in cell models, animals and humans. They found that animals exposed to mercury exhibited many of the pathological changes associated with the Alzheimer’s disease, including memory loss, poor cognitive performance and confusion. 

The researchers don’t have enough evidence to conclude that mercury exposure definitely causes these symptoms in humans, but data indicates a need to restrict exposure as a precautionary measure.

“Mercury is clearly contributing to neurological problems, whose rate is increasing in parallel with rising levels of mercury,” said Deth, a professor of pharmacology in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. “It seems that the two are tied together.”

Mercury, one of the most toxic natural substances, is found in some species of food fish, in amalgam dental fillings and in energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs. Mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants enter the food chain.

The heavy metal evaporates at room temperature, turns into a gas, enters the body, crosses the blood-brain barrier and gets trapped inside the brain, where it accumulates over time.

Deth found that mercury exposure impairs cognitive function by reducing the efficacy of selenium, an antioxidant that helps keep the brain healthy by suppressing damaging chemical reactions in humans.

Mercury binds to selenium, said Deth, promoting “oxidative stress” and decreasing the amount of available antioxidants.  Nerves stop functioning normally, cognitive impairment sets in and cells die.

Deth’s coauthors on the paper, titled “Does Inorganic Play a Role in Alzheimer’s Disease? A Systematic Review and an Integrated Molecular Mechanism,” include colleagues from the Institute of Transcultural Health Studies, at the European University Viadrina, the European Office of the Samueli Institute, and the Department of Environmental and Integrative Medicine, Konstanz, all in Germany.

Explore further: Treating ill health might not be enough to help homeless people get off the streets

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Pennsylvania to issue new mercury limits

Feb 22, 2006

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection reportedly plans to order a substantial cut in toxic mercury emissions from coal-burning plants.

Mercury reduction tied to emissions laws

Apr 03, 2006

Seven years after Massachusetts passed the nation's toughest mercury emission incinerator laws, mercury found in some freshwater fish is down 32 percent.

Study: Mercury can travel long distances

Dec 12, 2005

University of Washington scientists say they may have determined why mercury in the atmosphere might be washed out more easily than earlier believed.

Recommended for you

Study reveals state of crisis in Canadian foster care system

3 hours ago

A new study of foster care in Canada led by a researcher at Western University reveals a shrinking number of foster care providers are available across the country to care for a growing number of children with increasingly ...

Researchers prove the benefits of persimmons for diet

5 hours ago

Alba Mir and Ana Domingo, researchers from the Department of Analytical Chemistry of the University of Valencia, under the supervision of professors Miguel de la Guardia and Maria Luisa Cervera, from the same department, ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

js81pa
not rated yet Nov 16, 2010
So is there any way to rid the body of mercury? I have heard N-Acetyl-Cysteine may assist with heavy metal removal but never researched it extensively.