Lead exposure potentiates predatory attack behavior in the cat

Environ Res. 2003 Jul;92(3):197-206. doi: 10.1016/s0013-9351(02)00083-x.


Epidemiologic studies have demonstrated that environmental lead exposure is associated with aggressive behavior in children; however, numerous confounding variables limit the ability of these studies to establish a causal relationship. The study of aggressive behavior using a validated animal model was used to test the hypothesis that there is a causal relationship between lead exposure and aggression in the absence of confounding variables. We studied the effects of lead exposure on a feline model of aggression: predatory (quiet biting) attack of an anesthetized rat. Five cats were stimulated with a precisely controlled electrical current via electrodes inserted into the lateral hypothalamus. The response measure was the predatory attack threshold current (i.e., the current required to elicit an attack response on 50% of the trials). Blocks of trials were administered in which predatory attack threshold currents were measured three times a week for a total of 6-10 weeks, including before, during, and after lead exposure. Lead was incorporated into cat food "treats" at doses of 50-150 mg/kg/day. Two of the five cats received a second period of lead exposure. Blood lead concentrations were measured twice a week and were <1, 21-77, and <20 micro g/dL prior to, during, and after lead exposure, respectively. The predatory attack threshold decreased significantly during initial lead exposure in three of five cats and increased after the cessation of lead exposure in four of the five cats (P<0.01). The predatory attack thresholds and blood lead concentrations for each cat were inversely correlated (r=-0.35 to -0.74). A random-effects mixed model demonstrated a significant (P=0.0019) negative association between threshold current and blood lead concentration. The data of this study demonstrate that lead exposure enhances predatory aggression in the cat and provide experimental support for a causal relationship between lead exposure and aggressive behavior in humans.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / drug effects
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Cats
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Electric Stimulation
  • Electrodes
  • Female
  • Hypothalamic Area, Lateral / physiology
  • Lead / blood
  • Lead / toxicity*
  • Lead Poisoning / blood
  • Lead Poisoning / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Predatory Behavior / drug effects
  • Predatory Behavior / physiology*
  • Sensory Thresholds / drug effects
  • Sensory Thresholds / physiology


  • Lead