Changes in the number of astrocytes and microglia in the thalamus of the monkey Macaca fascicularis following long-term subclinical methylmercury exposure

Neurotoxicology. Spring 1996;17(1):127-38.


The effects of long-term subclinical exposure to methylmercury on the number of neurons, oligodendrocytes, astrocytes, microglia, endothelial cells and pericytes within the thalamus from the left side of the brain of the monkey Macaca fascicularis has been determined by use of the Optical Volume Fractionator stereological method. The accumulated burden of inorganic mercury (IHg) within these same cell types has been determined by autometallographic methods. Four groups of monkeys were exposed to methylmercury (MeHg; 50 micrograms Hg/kg body weight/day) by mouth for 6 months, 12 months, 18 months, or 12 months followed by 6 months without exposure (clearance group). Neurons, oligodendrocytes, endothelia, and pericytes did not show a significant change in cell number for any exposure group. Astrocyte cell number exhibited a significant decline for both the 6 month and clearance exposure groups. The microglia, in contrast, showed a significant increase in the 18 month and clearance exposure groups. Results from mercury speciation and quantification analysis of contralateral matched samples from the thalamus of the right side of the brain from these same monkeys indicated that MeHg concentrations plateaued at around 12 months exposure, whereas the inorganic levels, presumably derived from demethylation of MeHg, continued to increase throughout all exposure durations. Autometallographic determination of the distribution of IHg by cell type indicates that both the astrocytes and microglia contain substantially elevated IHg deposits relative to all other cell types. The data suggest that the inorganic mercury present in the brains, accumulating after long-term subclinical methyl mercury exposure, may be a proximate toxic form of mercury responsible for the changes within the astrocyte and microglial populations.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Astrocytes / drug effects*
  • Astrocytes / pathology
  • Cell Count
  • Female
  • Macaca fascicularis
  • Mercury / analysis
  • Methylmercury Compounds / metabolism
  • Methylmercury Compounds / toxicity*
  • Microglia / drug effects*
  • Microglia / pathology
  • Thalamus / drug effects*
  • Thalamus / metabolism
  • Thalamus / pathology
  • Time Factors


  • Methylmercury Compounds
  • Mercury