Brain health: 2 groups of household chemicals linked to cell damage

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Certain chemicals in household items may cause damage to brain cells, research suggests. Sarah Mason/Getty Images
  • The prevalence of neurological and neurodevelopmental conditions has increased over the past decade.
  • Although some of this increase may be due to better diagnosis, experts suggest that environmental factors could play a part.
  • A new study has found that some common environmental chemicals damage vital brain cells called oligodendrocytes.
  • The researchers suggest that this damage could help explain the rise in conditions such as autism-spectrum and attention-deficit disorders, as well as multiple sclerosis.

The number of people diagnosed with neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism-spectrum and attention-deficit disorders has increased greatly over the past decade. This could be a result of greater recognition and diagnosis of the conditions, but experts suggest that environmental factors might be driving these increases.

According to a new study, some common chemicals, found in personal-care and household products, damage specialized brain cells called oligodendrocytes that generate the myelin sheaths on nerve cells. The researchers suggest that exposure to these chemicals could lead to neurodevelopmental and neurological conditions, such as autism-spectrum conditions, attention deficit disorders and multiple sclerosis.

The study, from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, assessed the effect of a wide range of chemicals on isolated oligodendrocytes, organoid systems, and developing brains of mice. They found that two groups — organophosphate flame retardants and quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs) — damaged or caused the death of oligodendrocytes, but did not affect other brain cells.

The research is published in Nature Neuroscience.

“This is a fascinating study in which the authors have performed screening on close to 1,900 chemicals to identify classes of compounds that may regulate toxicity or developmental defects in oligodendrocytes. The screening technique the authors used is impressive, as most tools currently used only look at cytotoxic effects. As the authors have shown in this paper, non-cytotoxic chemicals can have other effects on cells, and that is important to study.”
— Dr. Souvarish Sarkar, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental medicine and neuroscience at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

The researchers also tested whether the chemicals had a similar effect on developing oligodendrocytes in mouse brains. They found that quaternary ammonium compounds (QACs), when given orally to mice, successfully crossed the blood-brain barrier and built up in brain tissue.

The mice lost oligodendrocyte cells in many areas of the brain, showing that these chemicals may pose a risk to the developing brain.

Following the mouse findings, they tested the organophosphate flame retardant tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCIPP) on a human cortical organoid model. The chemical reduced the numbers of mature oligodendrocytes by 70%, and the OPCs by 30%, suggesting that it was preventing the cells from maturing.

People may come into contact with these chemicals daily, as Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, professor of public Health at New Mexico State University, who was not involved in the study, explained to MNT:

“Unfortunately, these products are widely in use (e.g. organophosphates for making of dyes, varnishes, textiles, resins, etc, and quaternary ammonium for disinfectants and personal care products). Also, they came about due to disrepute of earlier classes of chemicals and their use has increased substantially.”

“The findings of this study suggest that we did not come up with good alternatives for earlier classes of chemicals (e.g. PBDEs). While the study uses a mouse model and lab cultures, there could be profound human health implications,” he added.

The researchers then assessed the levels of organophosphates that children aged 3-11 were exposed to using datasets from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) of the CDC, which recorded levels of the metabolite bis (1,3-dichloro-2-propy) phosphate (BDCIPP) in their urine.

They found that children with the highest levels of BDCIPP were 2–6 times more likely to have special educational needs or motor dysfunction than those with the lowest levels.

They suggest this is strong evidence of a positive association between organophosphate flame retardant exposure and abnormal neurodevelopment.

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