BACKGROUND: Studies of early-life neurotoxicant exposure have not been designed, analyzed, or interpreted in the context of a fully developmental perspective.
OBJECTIVES: The goal of this paper is to describe the key principles of a developmental perspective and to use examples from the literature to illustrate the relevance of these principles to early-life neurotoxicant exposures.
METHODS: Four principles are discussed: 1) the effects of early-life neurotoxicant exposure depend on a child's developmental context; 2) deficits caused by early-life exposure initiate developmental cascades that can lead to pathologies that differ from those observed initially; 3) early-life neurotoxicant exposure has intra-familial and intergenerational impacts; 4) the impacts of early-life neurotoxicant exposure influence a child's ability to respond to future insults. The first principle is supported by considerable evidence, but the other three have received much less attention.
DISCUSSION: Incorporating a developmental perspective in studies of early-life neurotoxicant exposures requires prospective collection of data on a larger array of covariates than usually considered, using analytical approaches that acknowledge the transactional processes between a child and the environment and the phenomenon of developmental cascades.
CONCLUSION: Consideration of early-life neurotoxicant exposure within a developmental perspective reveals that many issues remain to be explicated if we are to achieve a deep understanding of the societal health burden associated with early-life neurotoxicant exposures.