Sex-specific effects of perinatal FireMaster® 550 (FM 550) exposure on socioemotional behavior in prairie voles

Neurotoxicol Teratol. May-Jun 2020;79:106840. doi: 10.1016/ Epub 2019 Nov 12.


The rapidly rising incidence of neurodevelopmental disorders with social deficits is raising concern that developmental exposure to environmental contaminants may be contributory. Firemaster 550 (FM 550) is one of the most prevalent flame-retardant (FR) mixtures used in foam-based furniture and baby products and contains both brominated and organophosphate components. We and others have published evidence of developmental neurotoxicity and sex specific effects of FM 550 on anxiety-like and exploratory behaviors. Using a prosocial animal model, we investigated the impact of perinatal FM 550 exposure on a range of socioemotional behaviors including anxiety, attachment, and memory. Virtually unknown to toxicologists, but widely used in the behavioral neurosciences, the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster) is a uniquely valuable model organism for examining environmental factors on sociality because this species is spontaneously prosocial, biparental, and displays attachment behaviors including pair bonding. Dams were exposed to 0, 500, 1000, or 2000 μg of FM 550 via subcutaneous (sc) injections throughout gestation, and pups were directly exposed beginning the day after birth until weaning. Adult offspring of both sexes were then subjected to multiple tasks including open field, novel object recognition, and partner preference. Effects were dose responsive and sex-specific, with females more greatly affected. Exposure-related outcomes in females included elevated anxiety, decreased social interaction, decreased exploratory motivation, and aversion to novelty. Exposed males also had social deficits, with males in all three dose groups failing to show a partner preference. Our studies demonstrate the utility of the prairie vole for investigating the impact of chemical exposures on social behavior and support the hypothesis that developmental FR exposure impacts the social brain. Future studies will probe the possible mechanisms by which these effects arise.

Keywords: Anxiety; Brain; Endocrine disrupting chemicals; Endocrine disruptors; Flame retardants; Neural; Neurodevelopment; Social.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anxiety / chemically induced
  • Arvicolinae
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects*
  • Exploratory Behavior / drug effects
  • Female
  • Flame Retardants / toxicity*
  • Male
  • Organophosphates / toxicity*
  • Polybrominated Biphenyls / toxicity*
  • Pregnancy
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / chemically induced*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / psychology*
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Social Behavior


  • Firemaster 550
  • Flame Retardants
  • Organophosphates
  • Polybrominated Biphenyls