Groundwater is the main source of drinking water for a significant portion of the human population. In many agricultural areas, diffuse pollution such as high levels of total dissolved salts including nitrate, puts the quality of this resource at risk. However, the effect of exposure to these water contaminants on brain development is currently poorly understood. Here we characterised water from a borewell located in an intensely cultivated area (agricultural) or water from a borewell located in a nearby pristine forest. The agricultural borewell water was rich in nitrates with high total dissolved salts. We then studied the consequence of drinking the agricultural water on mouse brain development. For this, the agricultural borewell water or forest water was given to mice for 6 weeks before and during pregnancy and lactation. The brains of the offspring born to these dams were analysed at postnatal day (P)5 and P21 and compared using immunohistochemistry for changes in glial cells, neurons, myelin, and cell death across many brain regions. Brains from offspring born to dams who had been given agricultural water (versus forest control water) were significantly smaller, and at P21 had a significant degeneration of neurons and increased numbers of microglia in the motor cortex, had fewer white matter astrocytes and an increase in cell death, particularly in the dentate gyrus. This study shows that brain development is sensitive to water composition. It points to the importance of assessing neurodevelopmental delays when considering the effect of water contaminated with agricultural run offs on human health. MAIN FINDING: Pregnant and lactating mice were given borewell water from intensely cultivated land. Offspring brains reveal degeneration of neurons and a loss of astrocytes, increase in microglial cells and cell death, pointing to neurodevelopmental problems.
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