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Minamata disease revisited: An update on the acute and chronic manifestations of methyl mercury poisoning

The first well-documented outbreak of acute methyl mercury (MeHg) poisoning by consumption of contaminated fish occurred in Minamata, Japan, in 1953. The clinical picture was officially recognized and called Minamata disease (MD) in 1956. However, 50 years later there are still arguments about the definition of MD in terms of clinical symptoms and extent of lesions. We provide a historical review of this epidemic and an update of the problem of MeHg toxicity. Since MeHg dispersed from Minamata to the Shiranui Sea, residents living around the sea were exposed to low-dose MeHg through fish consumption for about 20 years (at least from 1950 to 1968). These patients with chronic MeHg poisoning continue to complain of distal paresthesias of the extremities and the lips even 30 years after cessation of exposure to MeHg. Based on findings in these patients the symptoms and lesions in MeHg poisoning are reappraised. The persisting somatosensory disorders after discontinuation of exposure to MeHg were induced by diffuse damage to the somatosensory cortex, but not by damage to the peripheral nervous system, as previously believed.