Impairments of memory and learning in older adults exposed to polychlorinated biphenyls via consumption of Great Lakes Fish

S. L. Schantz, D. M. Gasior, E. Polverejan, R. J. McCaffrey, A. M. Sweeney, H. E.B. Humphrey, J. C. Gardiner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


An association between in utero polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) exposure and impaired childhood intellectual functioning has been reported, but the potential impact of PCB exposure during adulthood on intellectual functioning has received little attention. We assessed the impact of PCBs and other fish-borne contaminants on intellectual functioning in older adults. The subjects were 49- to 86-year-old Michigan residents recruited from an existing cohort. Fish eaters ate > 24 lb of sport-caught Lake Michigan fish per year and non-fish eaters ate < 6 lb of Lake Michigan fish per year. A battery of cognitive tests including tests of memory and learning, executive function, and visual-spatial function was administered to 180 subjects (101 fish eaters and 79 non-fish eaters). Blood samples were analyzed for PCBs and 10 other contaminants. We evaluated cognitive outcomes using multiple regression. PCBs and dichlorodiphenyl dichloroethene (DDE) were markedly elevated in fish eaters. After controlling for potential confounders PCB, but not DDE, exposure was associated with lower scores on several measures of memory and learning. These included the Weschler Memory Scale verbal delayed recall (p = 0.001), the semantic cluster ratio (p = 0.006), and list A, trial 1 (p = 0.037), from the California Verbal Learning Test. In contrast, executive and visual-spatial function were not impaired by exposure to either PCBs or DDE. In conclusion, PCB exposure during adulthood was associated with impairments in memory and learning, whereas executive and visual-spatial function were unaffected. These results are consistent with previous research showing an association between in utero PCB exposure and impairments of memory during infancy and childhood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)605-611
Number of pages7
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2001


  • DDE
  • Dichlorodiphenyl dichloroethene
  • Executive function
  • Great Lakes Fish
  • Learning
  • Memory
  • Older adults
  • PCBs
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls
  • Visual-spatial function

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis

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