Prenatal exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls: a neuropsychologic analysis

Environ Health Perspect. 2009 Jan;117(1):7-16. doi: 10.1289/ehp.11294. Epub 2008 Aug 14.


Objectives: A large body of literature documents the effects of prenatal exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) on cognitive development of children. Despite this fact, no integrative synthesis has been published yet to identify the cognitive functions that are particularly affected. Our aim is to review this literature in an attempt to identify the cognitive profile associated with prenatal PCB exposure.

Data sources: Studies were identified by searching the PubMed database for articles published before June 2008. We reviewed data from nine prospective longitudinal birth cohorts for different aspects of cognition.

Data extraction: Associations between indicators of prenatal PCB exposure and performance on cognitive tasks reported in the selected studies are summarized and classified as general cognitive abilities, verbal or visual-spatial skills, memory, attention, and executive functions.

Data synthesis: The most consistent effects observed across studies are impaired executive functioning related to increased prenatal PCB exposure. Negative effects on processing speed, verbal abilities, and visual recognition memory are also reported by most studies. Converging results from different cohort studies in which exposure arises from different sources make it unlikely that co-exposure with another associated contaminant is responsible for the observed effects.

Conclusion: Prenatal PCB exposure appears to be related to a relatively specific cognitive profile of impairments. Failure to assess functions that are specifically impaired may explain the absence of effects found in some studies. Our findings have implications in the selection of cognitive assessment methods in future studies.

Keywords: attention; children; cognitive development; executive functions; memory; neuropsychologic profile; neurotoxicity; polychlorinated biphenyls; processing speed; review.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Maternal Exposure*
  • Memory
  • Neuropsychological Tests*
  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls / toxicity*
  • Pregnancy


  • Polychlorinated Biphenyls