Age-related accumulation of toxic metals in the human locus ceruleus

Publication Type:
Journal Article
PLoS ONE, 2018, 13 (9)
Issue Date:
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© 2018 Pamphlett et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. Damage to the locus ceruleus has been implicated in the pathogenesis of a number of neurological conditions. Locus ceruleus neurons accumulate toxic metals such as mercury selectively, however, the presence of toxic metals in locus ceruleus neurons of people of different ages, and with a variety of disorders, is not known. To demonstrate at what age toxic metals are first detectable in the locus ceruleus, and to evaluate whether their presence is more common in certain clinicopathological conditions, we looked for these metals in 228 locus ceruleus samples. Samples were taken at coronial autopsies from individuals with a wide range of ages, pre-existing conditions and causes of death. Paraffin sections of pons containing the locus ceruleus were stained with silver nitrate autometallography, which indicates inorganic mercury, silver and bismuth within cells (termed autometallography-detected toxic metals, or AMG™). No locus ceruleus AMG neurons were seen in 38 individuals aged under 20 years. 47% of the 190 adults (ie, aged 20 years and over) had AMG locus ceruleus neurons. The proportion of adults with locus ceruleus AMG neurons increased during aging, except for a decreased proportion in the 90-plus years age group. No differences were found in the proportions of locus ceruleus AMG neurons between groups with different neurological, psychiatric, or other clinicopathological conditions, or among various causes of death. Elemental analysis with laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry was used to cross-validate the metals detected by AMG, by looking for silver, gold, bismuth, cadmium, chromium, iron, mercury, nickel, and lead in the locus ceruleus of ten individuals. This confirmed the presence of mercury in locus ceruleus samples containing AMG neurons, and showed cadmium, silver, lead, iron, and nickel in the locus ceruleus of some individuals. In conclusion, toxic metals stained by AMG (most likely inorganic mercury) appear in locus ceruleus neurons in early adult life. About half of adults in this study had locus ceruleus neurons containing inorganic mercury, and elemental analysis found a range of other toxic metals in the locus ceruleus. Locus ceruleus inorganic mercury increased during aging, except for a decrease in advanced age, but was not found more often in any single clinicopathological condition or cause of death.
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