Maternal fish consumption, hair mercury, and infant cognition in a U.S. cohort

Emily Oken, Robert O. Wright, Ken P. Kleinman, David Bellinger, Chitra J. Amarasiriwardena, Howard Hu, Janet W. Rich-Edwards, Matthew W. Gillman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

437 Scopus citations


Fish and other seafood may contain organic mercury but also beneficial nutrients such as n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. We endeavored to study whether maternal fish consumption during pregnancy harms or benefits fetal brain development. We examined associations of maternal fish intake during pregnancy and maternal hair mercury at delivery with infant cognition among 135 mother-infant pairs in Project Viva, a prospective U.S. pregnancy and child cohort study. We assessed infant cognition by the percent novelty preference on visual recognition memory (VRM) testing at 6 months of age. Mothers consumed an average of 1.2 fish servings per week during the second trimester. Mean maternal hair mercury was 0.55 ppm, with 10% of samples > 1.2 ppm. Mean VRM score was 59.8 (range, 10.9-92.5). After adjusting for participant characteristics using linear regression, higher fish intake was associated with higher infant cognition. This association strengthened after adjustment for hair mercury level: For each additional weekly fish serving, offspring VRM score was 4.0 points higher [95% confidence interval (CI), 1.3 to 6.7]. However, an increase of 1 ppm in mercury was associated with a decrement in VRM score of 7.5 (95% CI, -13.7 to -1.2) points. VRM scores were highest among infants of women who consumed > 2 weekly fish servings but had mercury levels ≤ 1.2 ppm. Higher fish consumption in pregnancy was associated with better infant cognition, but higher mercury levels were associated with lower cognition. Women should continue to eat fish during pregnancy but choose varieties with lower mercury contamination.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1376-1380
Number of pages5
JournalEnvironmental Health Perspectives
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Child development
  • Cognition
  • Environmental health
  • Fish
  • Mercury
  • N-3 fatty acids
  • Neurotoxins
  • Seafood


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