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Short term prospective study of cognitive functioning in lead workers.
  1. B T Stollery,
  2. D E Broadbent,
  3. H A Banks,
  4. W R Lee
  1. Age and Cognitive Performance Research Centre, University of Manchester.


    In a short term prospective study 70 male lead workers performed a series of cognitive tasks on three occasions during an eight month period. Concurrently with the cognitive testing, the concentrations of blood lead, zinc protoporphyrin (ZPP) and urinary aminolaevulinic acid (ALA) were measured. Indicators of lead absorption were stable during the study and each subject was allocated to either a low (below 20 micrograms/dl), medium (21-40 micrograms/dl), or high (41-80 micrograms/dl) group on the basis of their average blood lead concentrations. Performance deficits tended to be restricted to the high lead group and, in general, neither practice nor continued exposure during the study altered the magnitude of these deficits. The main deficit was a slowing of sensory motor reaction time, which was seen most clearly when the cognitive demands of the task were low. In the cognitively simple five choice task, blood lead concentration correlated with impaired decision making, response execution, and "lapses in concentration." In the other cognitive tasks the high blood lead group tended also to be slower by a factor of about 1.08 but the dominance of cognitive over sensory motor demands attenuated the exposure-performance correlations. The high lead group also had difficulty in recalling nouns poorly related to the focus of an earlier semantic classification task. This difficulty increased over time and was one of the few findings that correlated with all measures of lead absorption. It is concluded that the primary psychological profile of lead impairment is one of sensory motor slowing coupled with difficulties in remembering incidental information.

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