Biomarkers of methylmercury exposure immunotoxicity among fish consumers in Amazonian Brazil

Environ Health Perspect. 2011 Dec;119(12):1733-8. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1103741. Epub 2011 Aug 25.


Background: Mercury (Hg) is a ubiquitous environmental contaminant with neurodevelopmental and immune system effects. An informative biomarker of Hg-induced immunotoxicity could aid studies on the potential contribution to immune-related health effects.

Objectives: Our objectives were to test the hypothesis that methylmercury (MeHg) exposures affect levels of serum biomarkers and to examine interactions between Hg and selenium (Se) in terms of these responses.

Methods: This cross-sectional epidemiological study assessed adults living along the Tapajós River, a system long affected by MeHg. We measured antinuclear (ANA) and antinucleolar (ANoA) autoantibody levels and eight cytokines in serum samples (n = 232). Total Hg (including MeHg) and Se were measured in blood, plasma, hair, and urine.

Results: The median (range) total Hg concentrations were 14.1 μg/g (1.1-62.4), 53.5 μg/L (4.3-288.9), 8.8 μg/L (0.2-40), and 3.0 μg/L (0.2-16.1) for hair, blood, plasma, and urine, respectively. Elevated titers of ANA (but not ANoA) were positively associated with MeHg exposure (log-transformed, for blood and plasma), unadjusted [odds ratio (OR) = 2.6; 95% confidence interval (CI): 1.1, 6.2] and adjusted for sex and age (OR = 2.9; 95% CI: 1.1, 7.5). Proinflammatory [interleukin (IL)-6 and interferon (IFN)-γ], anti-inflammatory (IL-4), and IL-17 cytokine levels were increased with MeHg exposure; however, in the subset of the population with elevated ANA, proinflammatory IL-1β, IL-6, IFN-γ, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α and anti-inflammatory (IL-4) cytokine levels were decreased with MeHg exposure. Although Se status was associated with MeHg level (correlation coefficient = 0.86; 95% CI: 0.29, 1.43), Se status was not associated with any changes in ANA and did not modify associations between Hg and ANA titers.

Conclusions: MeHg exposure was associated with an increased ANA and changes in serum cytokine profile. Moreover, alterations in serum cytokine profiles differed based on ANA response, suggesting a specific phenotype of MeHg susceptibility. Further research on the potential health implications of these observed immunological changes is warranted.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Antinuclear / blood
  • Autoantibodies / blood
  • Biomarkers / blood*
  • Brazil
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Cytokines / blood
  • Environmental Exposure*
  • Environmental Pollutants / blood
  • Environmental Pollutants / metabolism*
  • Environmental Pollutants / urine
  • Fishes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Immunotoxins / blood
  • Immunotoxins / metabolism*
  • Immunotoxins / urine
  • Methylmercury Compounds / blood
  • Methylmercury Compounds / metabolism*
  • Methylmercury Compounds / urine
  • Odds Ratio
  • Selenium / metabolism*


  • Antibodies, Antinuclear
  • Autoantibodies
  • Biomarkers
  • Cytokines
  • Environmental Pollutants
  • Immunotoxins
  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Selenium