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Somatosensory disturbance by methylmercury exposure.

Minamata disease is methylmercury poisoning from consuming fish and shellfish contaminated by industrial waste. The polluted seafood was widely consumed in the area around Minamata, but many individuals were never examined for or classified as having Minamata disease. Following the determination of the Supreme Court of Japan in October 2004 that the Japanese Government was responsible for spreading Minamata disease, over 13,000 residents came forward to be examined for Minamata disease. We studied 197 residents from the Minamata area who had a history of fish consumption during the polluted period to determine the importance of sensory symptoms and findings in making a diagnosis of Minamata disease. We divided the exposed subjects into non-complicated (E) and complicated (E+N) groups based on the absence or presence of other neurological or neurologically related disorders and compared them to residents in control area (C) after matching for age and sex. We quantitatively measured four somatosensory modalities (minimal tactile sense by Semmes-Weinstein monofilaments, vibration sense, position sense, and two-point discrimination) and did psychophysical tests of fine-surface-texture discrimination. Subjective complaints were higher in groups E and E+N than C. Over 90% of E+N and E subjects displayed a sensory disturbance on conventional neurological examination and 28% had visual constriction. About 50% of the E and E +N groups had upper and lower extremity ataxia and about 70% had truncal ataxia. The prevalence of these neurological findings was significantly higher in exposed subjects than controls. All sensory modalities were impaired in the E and E+N groups. All four quantitatively measured sensory modalities were correlated. The prevalence of complaints, neurological findings, and sensory impairment was similar or a little worse in group E+N than in group E. We conclude that sensory symptoms and findings are important in making the diagnosis of Minamata disease and that they can be determined even in the presence of neurological or neurologically related diseases.

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