Fish consumption and prenatal methylmercury exposure: cognitive and behavioral outcomes in the main cohort at 17 years from the Seychelles child development study

Neurotoxicology. 2011 Dec;32(6):711-7. doi: 10.1016/j.neuro.2011.08.003. Epub 2011 Aug 25.


Introduction: People worldwide depend upon daily fish consumption as a major source of protein and other nutrients. Fish are high in nutrients essential for normal brain development, but they also contain methylmercury (MeHg), a neurotoxicant. Our studies in a population consuming fish daily have indicated no consistent pattern of adverse associations between prenatal MeHg and children's development. For some endpoints we found performance improved with increasing prenatal exposure to MeHg. Follow up studies indicate this association is related to the beneficial nutrients present in fish.

Objectives: To determine if the absence of adverse outcomes and the presence of beneficial associations between prenatal MeHg and developmental outcomes previously reported persists into adolescence.

Methods: This study was conducted on the Main Cohort of the Seychelles Child Development Study (SCDS). We examined the association between prenatal MeHg exposure and subjects' performance at 17 years of age on 27 endpoints. The test battery included the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test (WCST), the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT), the Woodcock-Johnson (W-J-II) Achievement Test, subtests of the Cambridge Neuropsychological Test Automated Battery (CANTAB), and measures of problematic behaviors. Analyses for all endpoints were adjusted for postnatal MeHg, sex, socioeconomic status, maternal IQ, and child's age at testing and the child's IQ was added for problematic behavioral endpoints.

Results: Mean prenatal MeHg exposure was 6.9 ppm. There was no association between prenatal MeHg and 21 endpoints. Increasing prenatal MeHg was associated with better scores on four endpoints (higher W-J-II math calculation scores, reduced numbers of trials on the Intra-Extradimensional Shift Set of the CANTAB), fewer reports of substance use and incidents of and referrals for problematic behaviors in school. Increasing prenatal MeHg was adversely associated with one level of referrals to a school counselor.

Conclusions: At age 17 years there was no consistent pattern of adverse associations present between prenatal MeHg exposure and detailed domain specific neurocognitive and behavioral testing. There continues to be evidence of improved performance on some endpoints as prenatal MeHg exposure increases in the range studied, a finding that appears to reflect the role of beneficial nutrients present in fish as demonstrated previously in younger subjects. These findings suggest that ocean fish consumption during pregnancy is important for the health and development of children and that the benefits are long lasting.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adolescent Behavior / drug effects*
  • Adolescent Development / drug effects
  • Age Factors
  • Attention / drug effects
  • Cognition / drug effects*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Developmental Disabilities / chemically induced
  • Diet*
  • Educational Status
  • Female
  • Food Contamination*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence / drug effects
  • Intelligence Tests
  • Learning / drug effects
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure
  • Methylmercury Compounds / adverse effects*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects*
  • Prenatal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena*
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Factors
  • Seafood / adverse effects*
  • Seychelles
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / adverse effects*


  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical