Lead (Pb) is a xenobiotic metal with no known essential function in cellular growth, proliferation, or signaling. Decades of research characterizing the toxicology of Pb have shown it to be a potent neurotoxicant, especially during nervous system development. New concepts in the neurotoxicology of Pb include advances in understanding the mechanisms and cellular specificity of Pb. Experimental studies have shown that stress can significantly alter the effects of Pb, effects that could potentially be mediated through alterations in the interactions of glucocorticoids with the mesocorticolimbic dopamine system of the brain. Elevated stress, with corresponding elevated glucocorticoid levels, has been postulated to contribute to the increased levels of many diseases and dysfunctions in low socioeconomic status populations. Cellular models of learning and memory have been utilized to investigate the potential mechanisms of Pb-induced cognitive deficits. Examination of long-term potentiation in the rodent hippocampus has revealed Pb-induced increases in threshold, decreases in magnitude, and shorter retention times of synaptic plasticity. Structural plasticity in the form of adult neurogenesis in the hippocampus is also impacted by Pb exposure. The action of Pb on glutamate release, NMDA receptor function, or structural plasticity may underlie perturbations in synaptic plasticity and contribute to learning impairments. In addition to providing insight into potential mechanisms of Pb-induced cognitive deficits, cellular models offer an opportunity to investigate direct effects of Pb on isolated biological substrates. A target of interest is the 78-kDa molecular chaperone glucose-regulated protein (GRP78). GRP78 chaperones the secretion of the cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) by astrocytes. In vitro evidence shows that Pb strongly binds to GRP78, induces GRP78 aggregation, and blocks IL-6 secretion in astroglial cells. These findings provide evidence for a significant chaperone deficiency in Pb-exposed astrocytes in culture. In the long term, chaperone deficiency could underlie protein conformational diseases such as Alzheimer's Disease (AD). Lead exposure in early life has been implicated in subsequent progression of amyloidogenesis in rodents during old age. This exposure resulted in an increase in proteins associated with AD pathology viz., beta-amyloid precursor protein (β-APP), and beta-amyloid (Aβ). These four new lines of research comprise compelling evidence that exposures to Pb have adverse effects on the nervous system, that environmental factors increase nervous system susceptibility to Pb, and that exposures in early life may cause neurodegeneration in later life. © 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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