Altered myelination and axonal integrity in adults with childhood lead exposure: a diffusion tensor imaging study

Neurotoxicology. 2009 Nov;30(6):867-75. doi: 10.1016/j.neuro.2009.07.007. Epub 2009 Jul 18.


Childhood lead exposure is associated with adverse cognitive, neurobehavioral and motor outcomes, suggesting altered brain structure and function. The purpose of this work was to assess the long-term impact of childhood lead exposure on white matter integrity in young adults. We hypothesized that childhood lead exposure would alter adult white matter architecture via deficits in axonal integrity and myelin organization. Adults (22.9+/-1.5 years, range 20.0-26.1 years) from the Cincinnati Lead Study were recruited to undergo a study employing diffusion tensor imaging (DTI). The anatomic regions of association between water diffusion characteristics in white matter and mean childhood blood lead level were determined for 91 participants (52 female). Fractional anisotropy (FA), mean diffusivity (MD), axial diffusivity (AD), and radial diffusivity (RD) were measured on an exploratory voxel-wise basis. In adjusted analyses, mean childhood blood lead levels were associated with decreased FA throughout white matter. Regions of the corona radiata demonstrated highly significant lead-associated decreases in FA and AD and increases in MD and RD. The genu, body, and splenium of the corpus callosum demonstrated highly significant lead-associated decreases in RD, smaller and less significant decreases in MD, and small areas with increases in AD. The results of this analysis suggest multiple insults appear as distinct patterns of white matter diffusion abnormalities in the adult brain. Neurotoxic insults from the significant lead burden the participants experienced throughout childhood affect neural elements differently and may be related to the developmental stage of myelination at periods of exposure. This study indicates that childhood lead exposure is associated with a significant and persistent impact on white matter microstructure as quantified with diffusivity changes suggestive of altered myelination and axonal integrity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anisotropy
  • Axons / pathology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Cognition Disorders / etiology
  • Diffusion Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Processing, Computer-Assisted / methods
  • Lead / blood
  • Lead Poisoning / blood
  • Lead Poisoning / complications
  • Lead Poisoning / pathology*
  • Male
  • Monte Carlo Method
  • Nerve Fibers, Myelinated / pathology*
  • Young Adult


  • Lead