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Prenatal exposure to marine toxin causes lasting damage

Duke University Medical Center researchers have found that the naturally occurring marine toxin domoic acid can cause subtle but lasting cognitive damage in rats exposed to the chemical before birth. Humans can become poisoned by the potentially lethal, algal toxin after eating contaminated shellfish.

The researchers saw behavioral effects of the toxin in animals after prenatal exposure to domoic acid levels below those generally deemed safe for adults, said Edward Levin, Ph.D. Those effects -- including an increased susceptibility to disruptions of memory -- persisted into adulthood, he said.

The findings in rats, therefore, imply that the toxin might negatively affect unborn children at levels that do not cause symptoms in expectant mothers, said Levin. While the researchers note that eating seafood offers significant health benefits, they said their findings suggest that the current threshold of toxin at which affected fisheries are closed should perhaps be lowered. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) set the current limit based on levels safe for adults, Levin said.

"A single administration of domoic acid to pregnant rats had a lasting affect on the performance of their offspring as adults," Levin said. "The consequences are life-long.

"The findings suggest we may need to re-evaluate monitoring of waters, shellfish and fish to make sure that the most sensitive parts of the human population are protected from toxic exposure to domoic acid," he continued.

The researchers reported their findings in a forthcoming special issue dedicated to research on marine toxins of Neurotoxicology and Teratology.

In 1987, more than 100 people in Canada became ill after eating cultured mussels contaminated with domoic acid. The incident led to three deaths and memory loss in several others.

First detected in the U.S. on the Washington coast in 1991, domoic acid is produced by microscopic algae, specifically the diatom
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Source:Duke University Medical Center


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