Cross-sectional and prospective associations of early childhood circulating metals with early and mid-childhood cognition in the Project Viva cohort

Ruwan Thilakaratne, Pi I.D. Lin, Sheryl L. Rifas-Shiman, Julio Landero, Robert O. Wright, David Bellinger, Emily Oken, Andres Cardenas

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Abstract

Background: Relatively little is known about the immediate and prospective neurodevelopmental impacts of joint exposure to multiple metals (i.e., metal mixtures) in early childhood. Objectives: To estimate associations of early childhood (∼3 years of age) blood metal concentrations with cognitive test scores at early and mid-childhood (∼8 years of age). Methods: We studied children from the Project Viva cohort. We measured erythrocyte concentrations of seven essential (Co, Cu, Mg, Mn, Mo, Se, and Zn) and eight non-essential metals (As, Ba, Cd, Cs, Hg, Pb, Sn, and Sr) in early childhood blood samples. Trained research assistants administered cognitive tests assessing vocabulary, visual-motor ability, memory, and general intelligence (standard deviations: ∼10 points), in early and mid-childhood. We employed multivariable linear regression to examine associations of individual metals with test scores adjusting for confounders, other concurrently measured metals, and first-trimester maternal blood metals. We also estimated joint associations and explored interaction between metals in mixture analyses. Results: We analyzed 349 children (median whole blood Pb ∼1 μg/dL). In cross-sectional analyses, each doubling of Pb was associated with lower visual-motor function (mean difference: −2.43 points, 95% confidence interval (CI): −4.01, −0.86) and receptive vocabulary, i.e., words understood (−1.45 points, 95% CI: −3.26, 0.36). Associations of Pb with mid-childhood cognition were weaker and less precise by comparison. Mg was positively associated with cognition in cross-sectional but not prospective analyses, and cross-sectional associations were attenuated in a sensitivity analysis removing adjustment for concurrent metals. We did not observe joint associations nor interactions. Discussion: In this cohort with low blood Pb levels, increased blood Pb was robustly associated with lower cognitive ability in cross-sectional analyses, even after adjustment for prenatal Pb exposure, and regardless of adjustment for metal co-exposures. However, associations with mid-childhood cognition were attenuated and imprecise, suggesting some buffering of Pb neurotoxicity in early life. What this study adds: Relatively few studies have comprehensively separated the effects of neurotoxic metals such as lead (Pb) from pre- and postnatal co-occurring metals, nor examined persistence of associations across childhood. In a cohort of middle-class children, we found higher early childhood (∼3 y) blood Pb was associated with lower scores on cognitive tests, independent of other metals and prenatal blood Pb. However, early childhood Pb was only weakly associated with cognition in mid-childhood (∼8 y). Our results suggest the effects of low-level Pb exposure may attenuate over time in some populations, implying the presence of factors that may buffer Pb neurotoxicity in early life.

Original languageEnglish
Article number118068
JournalEnvironmental Research
Volume246
DOIs
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2024

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