Can common chemicals in the environment affect human foetal brain development ?

Human amniotic fluid contaminants alter thyroid hormone signalling and early brain development in Xenopus embryos

In a recent experiment conducted on tadpoles, researchers tested the hypothesis that common chemicals in the environment, singly and as a mixture, can interfere with human brain development.

2017 Study Abstract

Thyroid hormones are essential for normal brain development in vertebrates. In humans, abnormal maternal thyroid hormone levels during early pregnancy are associated with decreased offspring IQ and modified brain structure.

As numerous environmental chemicals disrupt thyroid hormone signalling, we questioned whether exposure to ubiquitous chemicals affects thyroid hormone responses during early neurogenesis.

We established a mixture of 15 common chemicals at concentrations reported in human amniotic fluid. An in vivo larval reporter (GFP) assay served to determine integrated thyroid hormone transcriptional responses.

  • Dose-dependent effects of short-term (72 h) exposure to single chemicals and the mixture were found. qPCR on dissected brains showed significant changes in thyroid hormone-related genes including receptors, deiodinases and neural differentiation markers.
  • Further, exposure to mixture also modified neural proliferation as well as neuron and oligodendrocyte size.
  • Finally, exposed tadpoles showed behavioural responses with dose-dependent reductions in mobility.

In conclusion, exposure to a mixture of ubiquitous chemicals at concentrations found in human amniotic fluid affect thyroid hormone-dependent transcription, gene expression, brain development and behaviour in early embryogenesis. As thyroid hormone signalling is strongly conserved across vertebrates the results suggest that ubiquitous chemical mixtures could be exerting adverse effects on foetal human brain development.

Sources and Press Releases
  • Human amniotic fluid contaminants alter thyroid hormone signalling and early brain development in Xenopus embryos, Nature, doi:10.1038/srep43786, 07 March 2017.
  • Everyday chemicals may affect brain development, including foetal IQ, the conversation, May 11, 2017.
  • Image credit Benny Mazur.

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