Neurobehavioral function and organophosphate insecticide use among pesticide applicators in the Agricultural Health Study

Neurotoxicol Teratol. Jan-Feb 2012;34(1):168-76. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2011 Aug 28.


Although persistent decrements in cognitive function have been observed among persons who have recovered from clinically overt organophosphate (OP) pesticide poisoning, little is known about the cognitive effects of chronic OP exposures that do not result in acute poisoning. To examine associations between long-term pesticide use and neurobehavioral (NB) function, NB tests were administered to licensed pesticide applicators enrolled in the Agricultural Health Study (AHS) in Iowa and North Carolina. Between 2006 and 2008, 701 male participants completed nine NB tests to assess memory, motor speed and coordination, sustained attention, verbal learning and visual scanning and processing. Data on ever-use and lifetime days of use of 16 OP pesticides were obtained from AHS interviews conducted before testing between 1993 and 2007 and during the NB visit. The mean age of participants was 61 years (SD=12). Associations between pesticide use and NB test performance were estimated with linear regression controlling for age and outcome-specific covariates. NB test performance was associated with lifetime days of use of some pesticides. Ethoprop was significantly associated with reduced performance on a test of motor speed and visual scanning. Malathion was significantly associated with poor performance on a test of visual scanning and processing. Conversely, we observed significantly better test performance for five OP pesticides. Specifically, chlorpyrifos, coumaphos, parathion, phorate, and tetrachlorvinphos were associated with better verbal learning and memory; coumaphos was associated with better performance on a test of motor speed and visual scanning; and parathion was associated with better performance on a test of sustained attention. Several associations varied by state. Overall, we found no consistent evidence of an association between OP pesticide use and adverse NB test performance among this older sample of pesticide applicators. Potential reasons for these mostly null results include a true absence of effect as well as possible selective participation by healthier applicators.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Intramural

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Agriculture*
  • Cognition Disorders / diagnosis
  • Cognition Disorders / epidemiology
  • Cognition Disorders / physiopathology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Comorbidity / trends
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / diagnosis
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / epidemiology
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / physiopathology*
  • Organophosphate Poisoning*
  • Organophosphates / classification
  • Pesticides / classification
  • Pesticides / poisoning
  • Prospective Studies


  • Organophosphates
  • Pesticides