New Superfund Research Center will explore metals’ effects on cognitive health


March 6, 2020 – Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has been awarded a five-year, multimillion-dollar federal grant to establish a Superfund Research Center to study the effects of metals and metal mixtures on cognitive health in late life.

The new Center—called “Metals and Metal Mixtures: Cognitive Aging, Remediation and Exposure Sources (MEMCARE)”—is aimed at assessing and evaluating how metals and metal mixtures contribute to cognitive decline and memory loss in older age; studying the biological mechanisms underlying these effects; and developing new ways to detect and remove metal contaminants in drinking water sources.

Harvard Chan School will lead a multidisciplinary team of roughly 18 investigators from nine institutions. The research is supported by a grant from the Superfund Research Program (SRP) of the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). The SRP will provide $1.8 million in the first year and about $1.6 million annually over the next four years. The goal of the SRP is to learn more about ways to protect the public from exposure to hazardous substances, such as industrial solvents and heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and mercury, which are found in contaminated water, soil, and air at hazardous waste sites throughout the U.S.

“Our team is thrilled to receive this highly competitive grant to address important research questions in environmental exposures and health in the aging population,” said Quan Lu, associate professor of environmental genetics and pathophysiology at Harvard Chan School and principal investigator and director of the Superfund MEMCARE Center. “With the global population of individuals over age 60 predicted to increase to 22% by 2050, up from 12% in 2015, it will be extremely important to study the health effects of metal contaminants on cognitive aging or neurodegeneration.”

Research has shown that most neurodegenerative diseases are not caused by genetics, but appear to be significantly influenced by environmental factors such as air pollution and drinking water contamination, said Lu. “But what connects exposure to these pollutants and aging-associated neurocognitive decline is not very clear,” he said. “So we designed this program to focus on heavy metals—not just individual metals, but also mixtures, because one usually doesn’t get exposed to just one single metal, but to a complex mixture. In the literature, very little is known about how these metals work together to produce harmful health effects on the population.”

One unique aspect of MEMCARE is that it will test a new hypothesis—that early life is a critical window for environmental exposures that harm cognitive health later in life. Researchers will study a cohort of 1,000 adults in their 60s and 70s in Missouri—home to 33 Superfund sites as of January 2016—who donated their baby teeth as children and whose toenails were collected once a year through adulthood as part of ongoing research known as the Baby Tooth Survey. The goal is to look for associations between metal concentrations in both the teeth and the toenails and current cognitive health in the cohort.

The MEMCARE team will also study other communities affected by hazardous wastes, including Roxbury, Mass., which has been exposed to metals from industrial and other sources, and San Luis Valley, Colo., where two nearby Superfund sites have contaminated drinking water.

Researchers involved in MEMCARE come from Harvard Chan School, the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (Harvard-SEAS), Arizona State University, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Dartmouth College, McLean Hospital, the Forsyth Institute, Yale University, and the University of Colorado. Harvard Chan faculty members on the team include Gary Adamkiewicz, David Christiani, Brent Coull, Tamarra James-Todd, Susan Korrick, Francine Laden, Xihong Lin, Rajarshi Mukherjee, Elsie Sunderland, and Marc Weisskopf.

Karen Feldscher

photo: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency