Brain-harming chemicals seen in clearer light with fresh findings


EU researchers are expanding understanding of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. © Kateryna Kon,

Professor Joëlle Rüegg is breaking new ground in a quest to learn more about how everyday chemicals can impair brain development in people, including infants, by interfering with their hormones.

An expert in environmental toxicology at Uppsala University in Sweden, Rüegg leads a research project that received EU funding to examine the impact of such substances on neurodevelopment. They’re known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, and can have the biggest effects on unborn babies and children. 

Sensitive system

The endocrine system sends out hormones, which activate “pathways” that deliver important signals to different types of cells. These signals help control growth, metabolism and even mood – and disruptions can have serious consequences.

Evidence over the years has pointed to a connection between EDCs and, for example, autism, hyperactivity and lower IQ, according to Rüegg. While many of the mechanisms underlying this link are still unknown, her project has started to shed some light on them.

‘We were able to connect certain signalling pathways to processes that are important for brain development,’ said Rüegg. ‘These hormonal pathways have not been identified previously as targets of these chemicals.’

EDCs are present in items ranging from toys and plastic containers to cosmetics and pesticides. Such chemicals include dioxins, bisphenols and phthalates and can be absorbed through contact with the air or water, through the skin or from food.

‘We’re constantly exposed to hundreds of chemicals that have these endocrine-disrupting properties,’ said Rüegg. ‘They affect a system – namely, the hormonal system – that’s sensitive to very small signals.’

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