Sensitivity to chemical in humans has been proposed to be an acquired disorder in which individuals become increasingly sensitive to chemicals in the environment. A possible link between the manifestation of psychiatric symptoms in individuals claiming sensitivity to chemical was investigated based on a leading hypothesis put forth by Bell and co-workers (1992) to explain the amplification of symptoms after chemicals exposure. The hypothesis is that chemical sensitivities may be akin to sensitization observed in rodents after repeated psychostimulants. Repeated exposure to psychostimulants enhances behavioral activity and the underlying neurochemical responses in specific limbic pathways; a similar sensitization of limbic pathways has been proposed to occur in individuals who become sensitive to chemicals. To test this hypothesis, female Sprague-Dawley rats were exposed to either air or formaldehyde (Form) for 1 h/day for 7 days or 20 days (5 days/week x 4 weeks). Two to 4 days after the last exposure, rats were given a cocaine challenge (= early withdrawal) followed by an additional cocaine challenge 4-6 weeks later (= late withdrawal). No differences in cocaine-induced locomotor activity were noted between groups after 7 days of exposure. However, after 20 days of exposure to Form, vertical activity was significantly elevated at both early and late withdrawal times. These studies demonstrated that behavioral sensitization occurs after long-term, but not short-term, low-level exposure to Form, and lends support to the limbic system sensitization hypothesis of sensitivity to chemicals in humans.
Sorg, B. A., Willis, J. R., See, R. E., Hopkins, B., & Westberg, H. H. (1998). Repeated low-level formaldehyde exposure produces cross-sensitization to cocaine: Possible relevance to chemical sensitivity in humans. Neuropsychopharmacology, 18(5), 385–394. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0893-133X(97)00179-6