Developmental immunotoxicology of lead


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Abstract

The heavy metal, lead, is a known developmental immunotoxicant that has been shown to produce immune alterations in humans as well as other species. Unlike many compounds that exert adverse immune effects, lead exposure at low to moderate levels does not produce widespread loss of immune cells. In contrast, changes resulting from lead exposure are subtle at the immune cell population level but, nevertheless, can be functionally dramatic. A hallmark of lead-induced immunotoxicity is a pronounced shift in the balance in T helper cell function toward T helper 2 responses at the expense of T helper 1 functions. This bias alters the nature and range of immune responses that can be produced thereby influencing host susceptibility to various diseases. Immunotoxic responses to lead appear to differ across life stages not only quantitatively with regard to dose response, but also qualitatively in terms of the spectrum of immune alterations. Experimental studies in several lab animal species suggest the latter stages of gestation are a period of considerable sensitivity for lead-induced immunotoxicity. This review describes the basic characteristics of lead-induced immunotoxicity emphasizing experimental animal results. It also provides a framework for the consideration of toxicant exposure effects across life stages. The existence of and probable basis for developmental windows of immune hyper-susceptibility are presented. Finally, the potential for lead to serve as a perinatal risk factor for childhood asthma as well as other diseases is considered.

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