Exposure to common flame retardant may affect fertility and long-term memory

Published on February 16, 2012 at 11:54 PM · No Comments

Study highlights the interaction between epigenetics and genetics and exposure to a flame retardant in mice

Mice genetically engineered to be susceptible to autism-like behaviors that were exposed to a common flame retardant were less fertile and their offspring were smaller, less sociable and demonstrated marked deficits in learning and long-term memory when compared with the offspring of normal unexposed mice, a study by researchers at UC Davis has found. The researchers said the study is the first to link genetics and epigenetics with exposure to a flame retardant chemical.

The research was published online today in the journal Human Molecular Genetics. It will be presented during a symposium on Saturday, Feb. 18, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) by Janine LaSalle, a professor in the Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology in the UC Davis School of Medicine and the UC Davis Genome Center. (LaSalle will discuss her research during a news briefing with other autism researchers at 9 a.m. on Feb. 19 in Room 221 on the second Level of the Vancouver Convention Center).

"This study highlights the interaction between epigenetics and the effects of early exposure to flame retardants," said Janine LaSalle, the study's senior author and a researcher affiliated with the UC Davis MIND Institute. "Our experiments with wild-type and mutant mice indicate that exposure to flame retardants presents an independent risk of neurodevelopmental deficits associated with reduced sociability and learning."

Epigenetics describes the heritable changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than those in the DNA sequence. One such mechanism is DNA methylation, in which genes are silenced when their activation no longer is required. DNA methylation is essential for normal development. The researchers chose a mouse that was genetically and epigenetically susceptible to social behavioral deficits in order to understand the potential effect of this environmental pollutant on genetically susceptible humans.

LaSalle and her colleagues examined the effects of the chemical BDE-47 (Tetrabromodiphenl ether), a member of the class of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenylethers, or PBDEs. PBDEs have been used in a wide range of products, including electronics, bedding, carpeting and furniture. They have been shown to persist in the environment and accumulate in living organisms, and toxicological testing has found that they may cause liver toxicity, thyroid toxicity and neurodevelopmental toxicity, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. BDE-47 is the PBDE found at highest concentrations in human blood and breast milk, raising concerns about its potential neurotoxic effects during pregnancy and neonatal development.

The research was conducted in the offspring of mice genetically engineered for the autism phenotype found in Rett syndrome, a disorder that occurs primarily in females and causes regression in expressive language, motor skills and social reciprocity in late infancy. The condition affects about 1 in 10,000 children.

Autism spectrum disorders are a group of neurodevelopmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral deficits. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 1 in 110 children born in the United States today will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

Rett syndrome is causally linked to defects in the methyl-CpG-binding protein 2 gene MECP2 situated on the X chromosome. Mutations in MECP2 result in a nonfunctional MeCP2 protein, which is required for normal brain development. The researchers evaluated the effects of exposure to BDE-47 on mice genetically engineered to have mutations in MECP2 and their offspring, or pups. The genetically engineered Mecp2 mother mice, or dams, were bred with non-mutant wild-type males. The dams were monitored for 10 weeks -- for four weeks prior to conception, three weeks during gestation and three weeks of lactation. They were then compared with a control group of normal, unexposed dams and pups over several generations and hundreds of mice.

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