Allison A. Appleton*, Brian P. Jackson, Margaret Karagas, and Carmen J. Marsit



Epigenetic alterations related to prenatal neurotoxic metals exposure may be key in understanding the origins of cognitive and neurobehavioral problems in children. Placental glucocorticoid receptor (NR3C1) methylation has been linked to neurobehavioral risk in early life, but has not been examined in response to neurotoxic metals exposure despite parallel lines of research showing metals exposure and NR3C1 methylation each contribute to a similar set of neurobehavioral phenotypes. Thus, we conducted a study of prenatal neurotoxic metals exposure and placental NR3C1 methylation in a cohort of healthy term singleton pregnancies from Rhode Island, USA (n = 222). Concentrations of arsenic (As; median 0.02 μ□/g), cadmium (Cd; median 0.03 μg/g), lead (Pb; median 0.40 μg/g), manganese (Mn; median 0.56 μg/g), mercury (Hg; median 0.02 μg/g), and zinc (Zn; 145.18 μg/g) measured in infant toenails were categorized as tertiles. Multivariable linear regression models tested the independent associations for each metal with NR3C1 methylation, as well as the cumulative risk of exposure to multiple metals simultaneously. Compared to the lowest exposure tertiles, higher levels of As, Cd, Pb, Mn, and Hg were each associated with increased placental NR3C1 methylation (all P < 0.02). Coefficients for these associations corresponded with a 0.71–1.41 percent increase in NR3C1 methylation per tertile increase in metals concentrations. For Zn, the lowest exposure tertile compared to the highest tertile was associated with 1.26 percent increase in NR3C1 methylation (P = 0.01). Higher cumulative metal risk scores were marginally associated with greater NR3C1 methylation. Taken together, these results indicate that prenatal exposure to neurotoxic metals may affect the offspring’s NR3C1 activity, which may help explain cognitive and neurodevelopmental risk later in life.

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* Denotes CSDA Associates, Affiliates, and Staff