Early life lead exposure alters the brain opioid system and may lead to mental disorders

While the exact cause of schizophrenia is unknown and much research has focused on genetics, researchers at the Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work are one step closer to understanding one pathway which may result in this long-term mental disorder.

“Environmental factors have been associated with psychiatric disorders and recent studies suggest lead exposure disrupts common pathways in schizophrenia and drug addiction” said Damaris Albores-Garcia, a postdoctoral associate in Dr. Tomás R. Guilarte’s Lab, who recently received third place in the 2020 Metal Specialty Section Post-Doctoral Research Award presented by the Society of Toxicology (SOT). This is the third consecutive year that Albores-Garcia is honored with the award at the annual conference for her abstract and poster presentations.

The study is examining the effects of chronic early lead exposure on the brain of juvenile, adolescents, and young adults in preclinical animal models.

“Using this animal model, we are able to observe how the brain changes at the neurochemical and behavioral level, allowing us to explore treatment options to mitigate the consequences of lead exposure” continued Albores-Garcia.

The studies for which she received this year’s award showed that early life lead exposure alters the brain’s opioid system – affecting susceptibility to addictions, pain, mood and fear management among others. 

Her work has also shown that lead exposure also changes the brain’s dopamine system, the neurotransmitter that plays a role in how humans feel pleasure and is tied to hallucinations and delusions in subjects with schizophrenia.

“Our findings, along with previous studies, suggest the role of environmental factors, such as lead, as a risk factor for mental disorders and indicate that our chronic early lead exposure model may serve as an environmental animal model of schizophrenia,” Albores-Garcia said. “This study may also suggest a predisposition to addictions in lead-exposed individuals that we are still researching.”


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