Neuropsychologic impairment and MRI abnormalities associated with chronic solvent abuse

J Toxicol Clin Toxicol. 2002;40(1):21-34. doi: 10.1081/clt-120002883.


Objective: Individuals chronically abusing organic solvents have been reported in the medical literature for almost four decades to have a variety of neurological abnormalities. Most have been single case reports or studies in small numbers of individuals. The purpose of this study was to evaluate the neurologic and neuropsychologic effects of chronic solvent abuse in a larger group of individuals and compare the results to a control group of other drug abusers. Attempts to estimate a dose-response relationship between solvent abuse and either neuropsychological tests or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) abnormalities were also undertaken.

Methods: A sample of 55 solvent abusers was compared to a sample of 61 users of other drugs, especially cocaine and alcohol, on a battery of cognitive and neuropsychological tests. Fifty of the solvent abusers and 51 members of the comparison sample also underwent MRI of the brain. Comparisons were made by means of multivariate analysis of variance and covariance.

Results: Compared to the general population, both groups performed poorly, scoring below the mean on most neuropsychological measures. Solvent abusers performed more poorly than the comparison sample on measures of working memory and executive cognitive functions. Both groups showed evidence of abnormal MRI findings, but a greater percentage of the solvent abuse group showed such abnormalities. No clear dose-response relationship was seen between solvent abuse and abnormalities on neuropsychological tests, but a strong dose-response relationship was seen in the presence of MRI abnormalities.

Conclusion: The findings in this study document widespread cognitive impairment, which could not be attributed to the effects of solvents entirely. These findings expand upon previous data regarding neurological abnormalities in solvent abusers, by demonstrating a dose-response relationship with MRI abnormalities. An unexpected finding was the high prevalence of neuropsychological impairment and MRI abnormalities among the comparison group. The results of this study has implications regarding low-level solvent exposure, as in the occupational setting, suggesting that MRI may be a more useful tool to sort out the presence of neurological abnormalities rather than neuropsychological tests. Since no dose-response relationship was seen between solvent abuse and neuropsychological testing, reliance upon these tests in assessing neurological injury from solvents is a highly dubious practice.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / pathology*
  • Brain Diseases / chemically induced
  • Brain Diseases / pathology
  • Brain Diseases / psychology
  • Cocaine / adverse effects
  • Cognition Disorders / chemically induced*
  • Cognition Disorders / psychology
  • Cohort Studies
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Ethanol / adverse effects
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Solvents / adverse effects*
  • Solvents / chemistry
  • Substance-Related Disorders / psychology*
  • Toluene / adverse effects


  • Solvents
  • Toluene
  • Ethanol
  • Cocaine