Mercury Exposure and Heart Rate Variability: a Systematic Review

Matthew O. Gribble, Alan Cheng, Ronald D. Berger, Lori Rosman, Eliseo Guallar

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


Background: Mercury affects the nervous system and has been implicated in altering heart rhythm and function. We sought to better define its role in modulating heart rate variability, a well-known marker of cardiac autonomic function. Design: This is a systematic review study. Methods: We searched PubMed, Embase, TOXLINE, and DART databases without language restriction. We report findings as a qualitative systematic review because heterogeneity in study design and assessment of exposures and outcomes across studies, as well as other methodological limitations of the literature, precluded a quantitative meta-analysis. Results: We identified 12 studies of mercury exposure and heart rate variability in human populations (ten studies involving primarily environmental methylmercury exposure and two studies involving occupational exposure to inorganic mercury) conducted in Japan, the Faroe Islands, Canada, Korea, French Polynesia, Finland, and Egypt. The association of prenatal mercury exposure with lower high-frequency band scores (thought to reflect parasympathetic activity) in several studies, in particular the inverse association of cord blood mercury levels with the coefficient of variation of the R-R intervals and with low-frequency and high-frequency bands at 14 years of age in the Faroe Islands birth cohort study, suggests that early mercury exposure could have a long-lasting effect on cardiac parasympathetic activity. Studies with later environmental exposures to mercury in children or in adults were heterogeneous and did not show consistent associations. Conclusions: The evidence was too limited to draw firm causal inferences. Additional research is needed to elucidate the effects of mercury on cardiac autonomic function, particularly as early-life exposures might have lasting impacts on cardiac parasympathetic function.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)304-314
Number of pages11
JournalCurrent environmental health reports
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2015


  • Cardiac autonomic function
  • Heart rate variability
  • Mercury
  • Neurotoxicity
  • Pediatric neurotoxicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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