Examining the evidence that ethylmercury crosses the blood-brain barrier

Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2020 Feb;74:103312. doi: 10.1016/j.etap.2019.103312. Epub 2019 Dec 9.


Scientific research can provide us with factual, repeatable, measurable, and determinable results. As such, scientific research can provide information that can be used in the decision-making process in the care of patients and in public policy. Although it has been suggested that ethylmercury (C2H5Hg+)-containing compounds do not cross the blood-brain barrier (BBB), this review examines the literature that addresses the question as to whether ethylmercury-containing compounds cross the BBB. The review will begin with cellular studies that provide evidence for the passive and active transport of mercury species across the BBB. Then, animal and clinical studies will be presented that specifically examine whether mercury accumulates in the brain after exposure to ethylmercury-containing compounds or Thimerosal (an ethylmercury-containing compound used as a preservative in vaccines and other drugs that metabolizes or degrades to ethylmercury-containing compounds and thiosalicylate). The results indicate that ethylmercury-containing compounds are actively transported across membranes by the L (leucine-preferring)-amino acid transport (LAT) system, the same as methylmercury-containing compounds. Further, 22 studies from 1971 to 2019 show that exposure to ethylmercury-containing compounds (intravenously, intraperitoneally, topically, subcutaneously, intramuscularly, or intranasally administered) results in accumulation of mercury in the brain. In total, these studies indicate that ethylmercury-containing compounds and Thimerosal readily cross the BBB, convert, for the most part, to highly toxic inorganic mercury-containing compounds, which significantly and persistently bind to tissues in the brain, even in the absence of concurrent detectable blood mercury levels.

Keywords: Blood-Brain barrier; Ethylmercury; Inorganic mercury; Methylmercury; Organic mercury; Thimerosal.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Transport, Active
  • Blood-Brain Barrier / chemistry*
  • Brain Chemistry
  • Ethylmercury Compounds / pharmacokinetics*
  • Humans
  • Thimerosal / pharmacokinetics*


  • Ethylmercury Compounds
  • Thimerosal