Lead harms boys’ brains more than girls’

February 3, 2015

Boys exposed to lead experience more negative effects on cognition than girls, a new study indicates. The study also may be the first to show that lead exposure has a detrimental cognitive impact on very young children.

Boys exposed to lead experience more negative effects on cognition than girls, a new study indicates. The study also may be the first to show that lead exposure has a detrimental cognitive impact on very young children. 

Researchers tested executive function and reading readiness skills in 40 children aged 3 to 6 years who lived within the Environmental Protection Agency-designated Omaha (Nebraska) Lead Superfund Site, the largest residential lead cleanup area in the United States. Twenty-three of the children had elevated blood lead levels (10 μg/dL or higher) and 17 didn’t.

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Boys with high blood lead levels performed poorly on tests of executive function, including memory and attention, whereas girls with elevated levels showed hardly any impact, performing as well as girls without elevated levels. The researchers note the findings support research suggesting that estrogen and estradiol may protect women and girls against the effects of neurotoxins such as lead.

The study also found that elevated blood lead levels affected executive function more negatively than reading readiness, supporting research findings linking lead exposure to atrophy within the prefrontal cortex of the brain. The prefrontal cortex controls executive function to a great extent, whereas temporal or parietal areas of the cerebral cortex influence reading skills.

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