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Benzo[a]pyrene-induced neurobehavioral function and neurotransmitter alterations in coke oven workers
  1. Qiao Niu1,
  2. Hongmei Zhang2,
  3. Xin Li3,
  4. Meiqin Li1
  1. 1Department of Occupational Health, School of Public Health, Shanxi Medical University, Taiyuan, China
  2. 2Department of Environmental Health, School of Public Health, Shanxi Medical University, Taiyuan, China
  3. 3Center of Disease Control and Prevention, Taiyuan Iron and Steel Company, Taiyuan, China
  1. Correspondence to Professor Qiao Niu, Department of Occupational Health, School of Public Health in Shanxi Medical University, 56 Xin Jian Nan Lu, Taiyuan 030001, China; niuqiao55{at}


Objective To study alterations in neurobehavioral function and neurotransmitter levels in coke oven workers occupationally exposed to benzo[a]pyrene (B[a]P) and explore possible biomarkers of B[a]P neurotoxicity.

Methods 176 coke oven workers occupationally exposed to B[a]P and 48 warehouse workers (controls) were investigated by questionnaire. Emotional and cognitive function was investigated using the WHO/NCTB. B[a]P concentrations in the working environment, concentrations of monoamine and amino acid neurotransmitters, and levels of urinary 1-hydroxypyrene (1-OH-Py) were assayed by HPLC. Spectrophotometry was used to determine choline neurotransmitter concentrations.

Results Airborne B[a]P concentrations were higher in the coke oven plant than in the controls' workplace, and 1-OH-Py levels were significantly increased in coke workers compared to controls (p=0.000). Digital span and order digital span scores indicated that learning and memory were significantly decreased in coke oven workers (p=0.006). Concentrations of norepinephrine (NE), dopamine, 5-hydroxytryptamine and homovanillic acid were lower, while levels of 5-hydroxyindoleacetic acid were higher in the exposed group compared to controls; the difference in NE was significant (p=0.000). Aspartic acid and gamma-aminobutyric acid levels were significantly decreased in coke oven workers compared to controls (p=0.004 and p=0.004). Acetylcholine (Ach) concentration was four- to fivefold greater in coke oven workers than in controls, while acetylcholine esterase (AchE) activity was significantly decreased (p=0.000 and p=0.012). Statistical analysis showed that digital span and order digital span scores were negatively correlated to Ach and positively correlated to AchE.

Conclusion Occupational B[a]P exposure may reduce coke oven workers' neurobehavioral function and monoamine, amino acid and choline neurotransmitter levels. Moreover, Ach and AchE correlated with neurobehavioral function; AchE has poor specificity, but Ach is a potential biomarker of B[a]P neurotoxicity in coke oven workers.

  • benzo[a]pyrene
  • neurobehavioral function
  • monoamine neurotransmitter
  • amino acid neurotransmitter
  • choline neurotransmitter
  • toxicology
  • neurobehavioural effects
  • neurophysiology
  • neuropsychology
  • metals

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  • Funding The Natural Science Foundation of China under Grant Number 30471437 and the Natural Science Foundation of ShanXi Province under Grant Number 20051093 provided funding for this study.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Patient consent Obtained.

  • Ethics approval This study was conducted with the approval of the Ethics and Human Subject Committees of Shanxi Medical University.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.