Human Studies Division, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina 27711.
The effects of lead exposure on cognitive function have been intensively studied during the past decade, but relatively little effort has been made to understand the impact on sensory function. Subtle impairments of visual and/or auditory processing, however, could have profound effects on learning. The objectives of this paper are to review what is known about the effects of lead exposure on visual and auditory function and to identify related research needs. In particular, the effects of lead exposure on sensory function in children, which have not been studied adequately, will be discussed. Evidence from human and animal studies reveal that lead exposure impairs auditory function. The cochlear nerve and more central structures appear to be preferentially sensitive in both developing and mature humans and experimental animals.
Elevations in hearing thresholds and increased latencies of brainstem auditory evoked potential have been reported at low-moderate levels of lead exposure. Higher doses of lead increase the threshold of the auditory nerve action potential, produce segmental demyelination and axonal degeneration of the cochlear nerve, but appear to have no effect on cochlear microphonics or structure.
Lead exposure affects both the retina and visual cortex of the developing and mature visual system.
Low to moderate level developmental lead exposure produces selective rod deficits which can be detected with electrophysiological and behavioral techniques. At slightly higher levels of lead exposure the visual cortex is affected. A wide range of functional and neurochemical effects on retinal function occurring at blood lead levels below 20 micrograms/dl, the current level of concern, have been observed in rats. Structural, biophysical and photochemical similarities of rods in rats, monkeys and humans argue the relevance of this data for pediatric lead screening.
To date, however, rod-mediated visual functions have not been examined in lead-exposed children. Undetected sensory deficits of these kinds may have profound impact on the motor and mental development of children as well as on the quality of life of affected adults.
There is clearly a need for more extensive sensory testing in children and workers to screen for lead-induced health effects and in animal models to clarify the mechanisms of lead neurotoxicity