Fetal and maternal immune responses to methylmercury exposure: A cross-sectional study

Jennifer F. Nyland, Susie B. Wang, Devon L. Shirley, Elisabeth O. Santos, Ana Maria Ventura, Jose M. de Souza, Ellen K. Silbergeld

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Methylmercury (MeHg) is a ubiquitous environmental contaminant with known neurodevelopmental effects. In humans, prenatal exposures primarily occur through maternal consumption of contaminated fish. In this study, we evaluated the association between prenatal exposure to MeHg and titers of total immunoglobulins (Ig) and specific autoantibodies in both mothers and fetuses by analyzing maternal and cord blood serum samples. We examined multiple immunoglobulin isotypes to determine if these biomarkers could inform as to fetal or maternal responses since IgG but not IgM can cross the placenta. Finally, we evaluated serum cytokine levels to further characterize the immune response to mercury exposure.The study was conducted using a subset of serum samples (N=61 pairs) collected from individuals enrolled in a population surveillance of MeHg exposures in the Brazilian Amazon during 2000/2001. Serum titers of antinuclear and antinucleolar autoantibodies were measured by indirect immunofluorescence. Serum immunoglobulins were measured by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and BioPlex multiplex assay. Serum cytokines were measured by BioPlex multiplex assay.In this population, the geometric mean mercury level was within the 95th percentile for US populations of women of childbearing age but the upper level of the range was significantly higher. Fetal blood mercury levels were higher (1.35 times) than those in their mothers, but highly correlated (correlation coefficient [. r]=0.71; 95% CI: 0.54, 0.89). Total IgG (r=0.40; 95% CI: 0.19, 0.62) and antinuclear autoantibody (odds ratio [OR]=1.05; 95% CI: 1.02, 1.08) levels in paired maternal and fetal samples were also associated; in contrast, other immunoglobulin (IgM, IgE, and IgA) levels were not associated between pairs. Total IgG levels were significantly correlated with both maternal (r=0.60; 95% CI: 0.25, 0.96) and cord blood mercury levels (r=0.61; 95% CI: 0.25, 0.97), but individual isotypes were not. Serum cytokines, interleukin-1Β (r=0.37; 95% CI: 0.01, 0.73), interleukin-6 (r=0.34; 95% CI: 0.03, 0.65), and tumor necrosis factor-α (r=0.24; 95% CI: 0.015, 0.47), were positively correlated between maternal and fetal samples. Antinuclear and antinucleolar autoantibody titer and serum cytokine levels, in either maternal or cord blood, were not significantly associated with either maternal or cord blood mercury levels.These data provide further evidence that there are likely IgG biomarkers of mercury-induced immunotoxicity in this population since IgG levels were elevated with increased, and associated with, mercury exposure. However, unlike previous data from adult males and non-pregnant females, we found no evidence that antinuclear and antinucleolar autoantibody titer is a reliable biomarker of mercury immunotoxicity in this population.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)584-589
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental research
Issue number4
StatePublished - May 2011


  • Autoimmune
  • Fetal
  • Immunotoxicity
  • Mercury

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry
  • Environmental Science(all)


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