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FIU experts tapped for study of possible links between childhood lead exposure and psychiatric diseases

FIU experts tapped for study of possible links between childhood lead exposure and psychiatric diseases

Multimillion-dollar investigation aims to explore the effects of the toxic metal on neurons, brain circuitry and behavior

March 22, 2024 at 4:00pm

Recent news points up continuing concerns about childhood lead exposure. One recent study found that about 70% of children under the age of 6 in Chicago could be exposed to drinking water contaminated by lead.

Another troubling situation from earlier this month: over 400 cases of lead poisoning were linked to cinnamon-flavored applesauce tainted with high levels of the toxic metal. Many of the people impacted were children — some of the most vulnerable when exposed, says Tomás R. Guilarte, a lead expert, neurotoxicologist and dean of the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work.

Guilarte—renowned for revealing the effects of low-level lead exposure on the central nervous system during brain development— aims to understand the lasting impacts of childhood lead exposure and discover methods to reverse its harm. Recently, his team was awarded a $2.7 million grant by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to support these efforts.

“Due to their developing physiology, children absorb a higher percentage of ingested lead,” Guilarte says. “Their brains are undergoing critical development stages, and lead interferes with those processes, potentially leading to significant neurotoxic effects.”

Lead can affect multiple organ systems, including the cardiovascular, renal and skeletal systems. Children exposed to lead are the most vulnerable to long-term brain damage and are at an increased risk of developmental and mental disorders like autism, ADHD and schizophrenia.

This is why no level of lead exposure is safe.

Yet, the poisonous metal can be found in food, water and in and around our homes. Here in the U.S., more than 170 million people – about half of the population—were estimated to be exposed to lead in their childhood. Worldwide, it is estimated that 1 in 3 children has been found to have alarming levels of lead in their blood.

“These long-term effects of lead exposure have no cure and can result in life-long disabilities that are currently untreatable,” says Guilarte. “In order to develop effective treatments, we need to better understand how lead exposure during childhood affects the brain.”

The NIEHS grant will allow Guilarte and a team of researchers to explore how lead exposure affects neurons, brain circuits and networks and behavior, helping to bridge gaps in understanding its role as a risk factor for developmental and psychiatric disease.

Together with Timothy Allen, director of the Neurocircuitry & Cognition Lab in the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, Guilarte will also assess the efficacy of the flavonoid 7,8-dihydroxyflavone — a natural chemical found in foods and currently available as a supplement that is capable of reaching the brain—in improving learning after lead exposure.

Guilarte is familiar with the flavonoid. In 2018, while at Columbia University he collaborated with colleagues from New York Medical College to demonstrate its ability to reverse lead-induced damage in animals. The new grant will allow Guilarte and Allen to expand on those studies to see whether the flavonoid can reverse lead-induced learning deficits in animals, with translational implications to children.

“This study will lead to new avenues for diagnosing and treating an array of different neurological outcomes that can occur in the millions of children exposed to dangerous levels of lead worldwide,” says Allen.