Although environmental lead exposure is associated with significant deficits in cognition, executive functions, social behaviors, and motor abilities, the neuroanatomical basis for these impairments remains poorly understood. In this study, we examined the relationship between childhood lead exposure and adult brain volume using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). We also explored how volume changes correlate with historic neuropsychological assessments.
Methods and Findings
Volumetric analyses of whole brain MRI data revealed significant decreases in brain volume associated with childhood blood lead concentrations. Using conservative, minimum contiguous cluster size and statistical criteria (700 voxels, unadjusted p < 0.001), approximately 1.2% of the total gray matter was significantly and inversely associated with mean childhood blood lead concentration. The most affected regions included frontal gray matter, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). Areas of lead-associated gray matter volume loss were much larger and more significant in men than women. We found that fine motor factor scores positively correlated with gray matter volume in the cerebellar hemispheres; adding blood lead concentrations as a variable to the model attenuated this correlation.
Childhood lead exposure is associated with region-specific reductions in adult gray matter volume. Affected regions include the portions of the prefrontal cortex and ACC responsible for executive functions, mood regulation, and decision-making. These neuroanatomical findings were more pronounced for males, suggesting that lead-related atrophic changes have a disparate impact across sexes. This analysis suggests that adverse cognitive and behavioral outcomes may be related to lead's effect on brain development producing persistent alterations in structure. Using a simple model, we found that blood lead concentration mediates brain volume and fine motor function.