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Office of Neuroscience Research > WUSTL Neuroscience News > $3.7 million to help research neurological disorders linked to manganese

$3.7 million to help research neurological disorders linked to manganese

 From the WashU Newsroom...

Manganese – found in smoke from steel production and coal fires – has been linked to a range of neurological problems often seen with Parkinson’s disease: slowness, stiffness, tremors, anxiety, depression, cognitive changes, and difficulty walking and speaking.

Decades ago, federal environmental and public health agencies established manganese-concentration levels of concern for human health, but some scientists suspect that these levels should be lower.

Now, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding a $3.7 million study led by Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis to determine whether people develop neurological damage from manganese at levels currently deemed safe.

“A pretty large area of the Midwest and the East has high industrial manganese exposures,” said Brad A. Racette, MD, the Robert Allan Finke Professor of Neurology and the study’s principal investigator. “A good percentage of our population, particularly those living in the Rust Belt, could have significant personal exposures.”

Racette teamed up with Gill Nelson, PhD, a professor at the University of the Witwatersrand School of Public Health in South Africa. Eighty percent of the world’s manganese is found in South Africa. Manganese mines dot the country’s Northern Cape region, and much of the metal is processed in one of the largest manganese smelters in the world, about 30 miles south of Johannesburg. The communities near the smelter have raised concerns about the metal, which is emitted into the air and eventually settles into the surrounding soil and water. In the United States, a similar process has contaminated land around iron- and steelworking facilities.

Racette and Nelson are studying a low-income community near the smelter to determine if residents living close to it have more difficulty with certain brain functions than those living farther from the smelter.

“We’re not looking for full-blown disease, but at a continuum of dysfunction that would preclude somebody from being able to function as well as someone without manganese exposure,” Racette said.

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