Respirator usage protects brain white matter from welding fume exposure: A pilot magnetic resonance imaging study of welders

Elza Rechtman, Paul Curtin, Lynn C. Onyebeke, Victoria X. Wang, Demetrios M. Papazaharias, Danielle Hazeltine, Erik de Water, Ismail Nabeel, Venkatesh Mani, Norman Zuckerman, Roberto G. Lucchini, Denise Gaughan, Cheuk Y. Tang, Megan K. Horton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Welding fume exposure has been associated with structural brain changes and a wide variety of clinical and sub-clinical outcomes including cognitive, behavioral and motor abnormalities. Respirator use has been shown to decrease exposure to welding fumes; however, the associations between respirator use and health outcomes, particularly neurologic health, have been understudied. In this preliminary study, we used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to investigate the effectiveness of respirator use in protecting workers’ white matter (WM) from the harmful effects related to welding fume exposure. Fractional anisotropy (FA), a common DTI measurement of water diffusion properties, was used as a marker of WM microstructure integrity. We hypothesized that FA in brain regions involved in motor and neurocognitive functions would differ between welders reporting respirator use compared to those not using a respirator. We enrolled a pilot cohort of 19 welders from labor unions in the New York City area. All welders completed questionnaires to assess welding history and occupational health. All completed a DTI acquisition on a 3 T Siemens scanner. Partial least squares discriminant analysis (PLS-DA), a bioinformatic analytical strategy, was used to model the divergence of WM microstructures in 48 regions defined by the ICBM-DTI-81 atlas between respirator users compared to non-users. This yielded an effective discrimination of respirator users from non-users, with the uncinate fasciculus, the cerebellar peduncle and the superior longitudinal fasciculus contributing most to the discrimination of these groups. These white matter tracts are involved in widespread motor and cognitive functions. To our knowledge, this study is the first to suggest a protective effect of respirator on WM microstructure, indicating that the lack of respirator may present unsafe working conditions for welders. These preliminary findings may inform a larger, longitudinal intervention study that would be more appropriate to investigate the potential protective effect of respirator usage on brain white matter in welders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)202-208
Number of pages7
StatePublished - May 2020


  • Diffusion tensor imaging
  • Neuroimaging
  • Partial least squares discriminant analysis
  • Respirator
  • Welding
  • White matter


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