"This study highlights the interaction between epigenetics and the effects of early exposure to flame retardants," said Janine LaSalle, the study's senior author and a researcher affiliated with the UC Davis MIND Institute. "Our experiments with wild-type and mutant mice indicate that exposure to flame retardants presents an independent risk of neurodevelopmental deficits associated with reduced sociability and learning."
Epigenetics describes the heritable changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than those in the DNA sequence. One such mechanism is DNA methylation, in which genes are silenced when their activation no longer is required. DNA methylation is essential for normal development. The researchers chose a mouse that was genetically and epigenetically susceptible to social behavioral deficits in order to understand the potential effect of this environmental pollutant on genetically susceptible humans.
LaSalle and her colleagues examined the effects of the chemical BDE-47 (Tetrabromodiphenl ether), a member of the class of flame retardants called polybrominated diphenylethers, or PBDEs. PBDEs have been used in a wide range of products, including electronics, bedding, carpeting and furniture. BDE-47 is the PBDE found at highest concentrations in human blood and breast milk, raising concerns about its potential neurotoxic effects during pregnancy and neonatal development.
LaSalle said that the study results are important because better understanding of the epigenetic pathways implicated in social behavior and cognition may lead to improved treatments for autism spectrum disorders.
"While the obvious preventative step is to limit the use and accumulation of PBDEs in our environment, this would likely be a long-term solution," LaSalle said. "These pollutants are going to be hard to get rid of tomorrow. However, one important preventative that all women could do tomorrow is to start taking prenatal vitamins before becoming pregnant, as these may counteract the toxins in our environment through DNA methylation," she said.