NIH examines lead's impact on dementia, bone density

March / April 2015 | Volume 14, Issue 2

Frail looking elderly woman wearing a house dress seated in doorway leans on a cane
Photo by Elson T. Elizaga,
courtesy of Photoshare

An elderly woman sits by a door in Cagayan
de Oro, Philippines.

Lead is toxic to the human brain and its use as an additive in gasoline has largely been stamped out, greatly reducing new human exposure. But some scientists wonder whether lingering traces of the metal stored in the body might reenter circulation later in life, fueling dementia and reducing bone function.

The NIH is seeking information on various aspects of these topics, as well as unique opportunities to conduct studies in related areas. Fogarty - in partnership with the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) - has issued a Request for Information, with responses to be submitted by June 30, 2015.

Lead was added to gasoline globally to stop vehicle engine knocking and thus became airborne in exhaust. Populations in the U.S. were exposed from the 1920s until 1980, while residents in many other countries also breathed it in for decades. Leaded gasoline continued to be sold in some places until just two years ago, according to the UN’s Environmental Program.

Research has shown that lead impairs cognitive function in the developing brain, but much less studied is the metal’s impact in the adult and especially the aging brain. Animal and human studies have identified that lead can remain in the body for many years, primarily in bone. Scientists want to know whether this interferes with bone function later in life thus raising the risk of fracture and, if osteoporosis develops, whether this releases lead more generally into the body again, where it could compromise brain health.

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