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Toxicity of organic and inorganic mercury species in differentiated human neurons and human astrocytes

Organic mercury (Hg) species exert their toxicity primarily in the central nervous system. The food relevant Hg species methylmercury (MeHg) has been frequently studied regarding its neurotoxic effects in vitro and in vivo. Neurotoxicity of thiomersal, which is used as a preservative in medical preparations, is to date less characterised. Due to dealkylation of organic Hg or oxidation of elemental Hg, inorganic Hg is present in the brain albeit these species are not able to readily cross the blood brain barrier. This study compared for the first time toxic effects of organic MeHg chloride (MeHgCl) and thiomersal as well as inorganic mercury chloride (HgCl2) in differentiated human neurons (LUHMES) and human astrocytes (CCF-STTG1). The three Hg species differ in their degree and mechanism of toxicity in those two types of brain cells. Generally, neurons are more susceptible to Hg species induced cytotoxicity as compared to astrocytes. This might be due to the massive cellular mercury uptake in the differentiated neurons. The organic compounds exerted stronger cytotoxic effects as compared to inorganic HgCl2. In contrast to HgCl2 exposure, organic Hg compounds seem to induce the apoptotic cascade in neurons following low-level exposure. No indicators for apoptosis were identified for both inorganic and organic mercury species in astrocytes. Our studies clearly demonstrate species-specific toxic mechanisms. A mixed exposure towards all Hg species in the brain can be assumed. Thus, prospectively coexposure studies as well as cocultures of neurons and astrocytes could provide additional information in the investigation of Hg induced neurotoxicity.

Lohren, H; Blagojevic, L; Fitkau, R; Ebert, F; Schildknecht, S; Leist, M; Schwerdtle, T; 2015. Toxicity of organic and inorganic mercury species in differentiated human neurons and human astrocytes. Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology 32, 200-8.