Translational Studies of Neurobehavioral Effects of Mercury Exposure

William McIlvane and Leo Buchanan

Funded by NIEHS, R21 ES15464

Basic and clinical researchers of the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS), Auburn University (AU), Harvard University (HU), and the Universidade Federal do Pará (UFPA) (Brasil) requested funding to develop an interdisciplinary program of translational biobehavioral research and research training focusing on neurotoxic effects of heavy metal exposure in humans and animal models. In this first project, the primary focus will be on effects of Hg exposure (emphasizing initially on methymercury [MeHg]). The project will (a) validate novel methodology for evaluating neurobehavioral functioning in nonhuman primates, (b) apply the methodology to study effects of Hg exposure on behavior, and (c) extend the methodology to evaluate sensory and neurocognitive function of Hg exposure in children living near gold-mining operations in Brasil.

The grant will permit a three-pronged program: (1) In the first year, collaborating investigators will merge streams of research at UMMS, HU, AU, and UFPA to the end of validating a battery of nonverbal neurobehavioral tests that is appropriate for use with both nonhuman primates and human children. (2) In both project years, the project team will conduct feasibility research to apply the battery to assess sensory and neurocognitive effects of mercury exposure in (a) laboratory studies of nonhuman primates and (b) field studies with children. (3) The team will evaluate the feasibility of developing a sustained program of pre-doctoral and post-doctoral research training focusing on interdisciplinary analysis of the neurobehavioral effects of heavy metal exposure. The project will take advantage of successful US program models such as the NICHD-supported Mental Retardation Developmental Disabilities Research Centers.