The role of thiols, dithiols, nutritional factors and interacting ligands in the toxicology of mercury

Toxicology. 2007 May 20;234(3):145-56. doi: 10.1016/j.tox.2007.02.016. Epub 2007 Mar 1.


Mercury has been a known as a toxic substance for centuries. Whilst the clinical features of acute mercury poisoning have been well described, chronic low dose exposure to mercury remains poorly characterised and its potential role in various chronic disease states remains controversial. Low molecular weight thiols, i.e. sulfhydryl containing molecules such as cysteine, are emerging as important factors in the transport and distribution of mercury throughout the body due to the phenomenon of "Molecular Mimicry" and its role in the molecular transport of mercury. Chelation agents such as the dithiols sodium 2,3-dimercaptopropanesulfate (DMPS) and meso-2,3-dimercaptosuccinic acid (DMSA) are the treatments of choice for mercury toxicity. Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), a disulfide, and its metabolite dihydrolipoic acid (DHLA), a dithiol, have also been shown to have chelation properties when used in an appropriate manner. Whilst N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) and glutathione (GSH) have been recommended in the treatment of mercury toxicity in the past, an examination of available evidence suggests these agents may in fact be counterproductive. Zinc and selenium have also been shown to exert protective effects against mercury toxicity, most likely mediated by induction of the metal binding proteins metallothionein and selenoprotein-P. Evidence suggests however that the co-administration of selenium and dithiol chelation agents during treatment may also be counter-productive. Finally, the issue of diagnostic testing for chronic, historical or low dose mercury poisoning is considered including an analysis of the influence of ligand interactions and nutritional factors upon the accuracy of "chelation challenge" tests.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Animals
  • Chelating Agents / therapeutic use
  • Half-Life
  • Humans
  • Ligands
  • Mercury / chemistry
  • Mercury / pharmacokinetics
  • Mercury / toxicity*
  • Mercury Poisoning / diagnosis
  • Mercury Poisoning / drug therapy
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds / physiology*
  • Thioctic Acid / therapeutic use


  • Chelating Agents
  • Ligands
  • Sulfhydryl Compounds
  • Thioctic Acid
  • Mercury