Several metals have toxic actions on nerve cells and neurobehavorial functioning. These toxic actions can be expressed either as developmental effects or as an increased risk of neurodegenerative diseases in old age. The major metals causing neurobehavioral effects after developmental exposure are lead and methylmercury. Lead exposure in young children results in a permanent loss of IQ of approximately 5 to 7 IQ points, and also results in a shortened attention span and expression of anti-social behaviors. There is a critical time period (<2 years of age) for development of these effects, after which the effects do not appear to be reversible even if blood lead levels are lowered with chelation. Methylmercury has also been found to have effects on cognition at low doses, and prenatal exposure at higher levels can disrupt brain development. Metals have also been implicated in neurodegenerative diseases, although it is unlikely that they are the sole cause for any of them. Elevated aluminum levels in blood, usually resulting from kidney dialysis at home with well water containing high aluminum, result in dementia that is similar to but probably different from that of Alzheimer’s disease. However, there is some epidemiological evidence for elevated risk of Alzheimer’s in areas where there is high concentration of aluminum in drinking water. Other metals, especially lead, mercury, manganese and copper, have been implicated in amvotrophic lateral sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease.
Carpenter DO. Int J Occup Med Environ Health. 2001; 14(3):209-18. 11764847 PubMed.