Researchers have identified a potential molecular mechanism through which lead, a pervasive environmental toxin, may harm neural stem cells and neurodevelopment in children. The study, from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, suggests that lead exposure can lead to oxidative stress—a process that can change cell behavior and has been linked with health problems—among certain proteins within neural stem cells.

The study—one of the first to integrate genetic analysis in the lab with genomic data from participants in an epidemiological study—was published online Aug. 26, 2016 in Environmental Health Perspectives.

“It is known that lead particularly affects the early stages of neurodevelopment, but the underlying molecular mechanisms remain poorly understood. Our study identified one such key mechanism and has potential implications for therapeutics to treat the neurotoxicity associated with lead exposure,” said Quan Lu, associate professor of environmental genetics and pathophysiology and senior author of the study.

Numerous studies have suggested that lead exposure can be particularly dangerous for children, with the potential to harm their cognitive, language, and psychomotor development and to increase antisocial and delinquent behavior. Although limits on the use of the lead have helped reduce blood lead levels in U.S. children, there are still half a million children aged 1 to 5 with blood lead levels twice as high as those deemed safe by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Recent incidences of lead contamination in drinking water in Flint, Mich., and several U.S. cities highlight the continued threat.

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