Research Review: Environmental exposures, neurodevelopment, and child mental health – new paradigms for the study of brain and behavioral effects

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Abstract

Background:

Environmental exposures play a critical role in the genesis of some child mental health problems.

Methods:

We open with a discussion of children's vulnerability to neurotoxic substances, changes in the distribution of toxic exposures, and cooccurrence of social and physical exposures. We address trends in prevalence of mental health disorders, and approaches to the definition of disorders that are sensitive to the subtle effects of toxic exposures. We suggest broadening outcomes to include dimensional measures of autism spectrum disorders, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and child learning capacity, as well as direct assessment of brain function.

Findings:

We consider the impact of two important exposures on children's mental health: lead and pesticides. We argue that longitudinal research designs may capture the cascading effects of exposures across biological systems and the full-range of neuropsychological endpoints. Neuroimaging is a valuable tool for observing brain maturation under varying environmental conditions. A dimensional approach to measurement may be sensitive to subtle subclinical toxic effects, permitting the development of exposure-related profiles and testing of complex functional relationships between brain and behavior. Questions about the neurotoxic effects of chemicals become more pressing when viewed through the lens of environmental justice.

Conclusions:

Reduction in the burden of child mental health disorders will require longitudinal study of neurotoxic exposures, incorporating dimensional approaches to outcome assessment, and measures of brain function. Research that seeks to identify links between toxic exposures and mental health outcomes has enormous public health and societal value.

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