Prenatal Exposure to Flame Retardants Linked to Reading Problems

Summary: Children whose mothers were exposed to PBDE flame retardants while pregnancy had less efficient reading networks, and increased risk of developing reading disorders.

Source: Columbia University

A new study from researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons suggests that prenatal exposure to flame retardants may increase the risk of reading problems.

The study was published in the January 2020 print edition of Environmental International.

An estimated 2 million children have learning disorders; of these, about 80% have a reading disorder. Genetics account for many, but not all, instances of reading disorders.

In the current study, the researchers hypothesized that in utero exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)–a type of flame retardant that is known to have adverse effects on brain development–might alter the brain processes involved in reading. (While use of PBDEs has been banned, exposure to the compounds is still widespread because they do not degrade easily in the environment.)

The research team analyzed neuro-imaging data from 33 5-year-old children–all novice readers–who were first given a reading assessment to identify reading problems. They also used maternal blood samples, taken during pregnancy, to estimate prenatal exposure to PDBEs.

The researchers found that children with a better-functioning reading network had fewer reading problems. The also showed that children with greater exposure to PDBEs had a less efficient reading network.

However, greater exposure did not appear to affect the function of another brain network involved in social processing that has been associated with psychiatric disorders such as autism spectrum disorder.

“Since social processing problems are not a common aspect of reading disorders, our findings suggest that exposure to PDBEs doesn’t affect the whole brain–just the regions associated with reading,” says Amy Margolis, PhD, assistant professor of medical psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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The researchers found that children with a better-functioning reading network had fewer reading problems. Image is in the public domain.

Although exposure to PDBEs affected reading network function in the 5-year-olds, it did not have an impact on word recognition in this group. The finding is consistent with a previous study, in which the effects of exposure to the compounds on reading were seen in older children but not in emergent readers. “Our findings suggest that the effects of exposure are present in the brain before we can detect changes in behavior,” says Margolis. “Future studies should examine whether behavioral interventions at early ages can reduce the impact of these exposures on later emerging reading problems.”

Additional authors are Sarah Banker (Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, NY), David Pagliaccio (CUIMC), Erik De Water (Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, NY), Paul Curtin (Icahn School of Medicine), Anny Bonilla (Icahn School of Medicine), Julie B. Herbstman (CUIMC), Robin Whyatt (CUIMC), Ravi Bansal (University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA), Andreas Sjödin (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, GA), Michael P. Milham (Child Mind Institute, New York, NY), Bradley S. Peterson (USC), Pam Factor-Litvak (CUIMC), Megan K. Horton (Icahn School of Medicine).

Funding: This work was supported by funding from the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (K23ES026239 to A.E.M., R00 ES020364 to M.K.H; R21 ES016610-01 to R.W.)

The authors report no financial or other conflicts of interest.

About this neuroscience research article

Columbia University
Media Contacts:
Eian Kantor – Columbia University
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“Functional connectivity of the reading network is associated with prenatal polybrominated diphenyl ether concentrations in a community sample of 5 year-old children: A preliminary study”. Amy Margolis et al.
Environment International doi:10.1016/j.envint.2019.105212.


Functional connectivity of the reading network is associated with prenatal polybrominated diphenyl ether concentrations in a community sample of 5 year-old children: A preliminary study

Genetic factors explain 60 percent of variance in reading disorder. Exposure to neurotoxicants, including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), may be overlooked risk factors for reading problems. We used resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging (rs-fMRI) to examine associations between prenatal PBDE concentrations and functional connectivity of a reading-related network (RN) in a community sample of 5-year-old children (N = 33). Maternal serum PBDE concentrations (∑PBDE) were measured at 12.2 ± 2.8 weeks gestation (mean ± SD). The RN was defined by 12 regions identified in prior task-based fMRI meta-analyses; global efficiency (GE) was used to measure network integration. Linear regression evaluated associations between ∑PBDE, word reading, and GE of the RN and the default mode network (DMN); the latter to establish specificity of findings. Weighted quantile sum regression analyses evaluated the contributions of specific PBDE congeners to observed associations. Greater RN efficiency was associated with better word reading in these novice readers. Children with higher ∑PBDE showed reduced GE of the RN; ∑PBDE was not associated with DMN efficiency, demonstrating specificity of our results. Consistent with prior findings, ∑PBDE was not associated word reading at 5-years-old. Altered efficiency and integration of the RN may underlie associations between ∑PBDE concentrations and reading problems observed previously in older children.

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