Brussels, 09 Dec 2004
With the number of children suffering from learning and behavioural disorders seemingly on the increase, scientists fear that exposure of new born or unborn children to neurotoxicants (chemicals in the environment that can damage the nervous system) are responsible.
The European Commission is therefore providing 2.4 million euro to the Specific Targeted Research Project (STREP) DEVNERTOX. The project will investigate the neurotoxic effect of persistent food contaminants on the developing nervous system.
Mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are two examples of persistent pollutants that build up both in the environment and the food chain. The effect they might have on people and particularly children is not fully understood, nor is the long-term effect of exposure to low doses of these substances.
PCBs have been used in a variety of industrial products while mercury can often be found in polluted sea and rivers. Scientists believe that both pollutants can cause memory and language deficits. Furthermore, PCBs are considered to be hormone disrupters.
The DEVNERTOX project will be first time scientists study the combined effects of mercury and PCBs.
It is believed that children and unborn babies, whose nervous system is still developing, may be most at risk from these chemicals. Indeed, studies have shown that foetuses react to neurotoxicants at levels too low to have an impact on adult nerve cells. The repercussions of this could persist into adulthood, resulting in hypersensitivity to other chemicals, or neural diseases in old age.
As the DEVNERTOX consortium, which consists of nine partners from six EU countries, explains, neurotoxicants are a challenge for researchers because the nervous system is so complex. Observable changes in behaviours are very different from the biochemical responses of cells to toxicants. The project will therefore investigate, in parallel, behavioural effects on live animals and physiological effects on cultural cells.
The focus of the studies will be on young and developing nervous cells, while animal studies will follow individuals through to old age, to test the long term effect of early exposure.
'The major goals of DEVNERTOX,' explains the consortium 'are to develop standardised testing protocols based on the use of multiple in-vitro experimental models; identify specific biochemical, molecular and functional endpoints based on the mechanism of action of specific neurotoxicants, both alone and in combination; evaluate the neurotoxic effects of the selected substances during development and the long-term consequences, with special attention to gender-related aspects; define and quantitative measures of observed effects for risk-assessment purposes, and incorporate currently available human and animal data to derive guidelines and exposure limits as gold standards.'
The consortium hopes that the successful completion of the project will also lead to less animal testing in this area in the future.
For further information about DEVNERTOX, please visit:
For further information on the 'food quality and safety' priority of FP6, please visit: