Kristin Gellein, a PHD student at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, developed a method that can use a piece of hair as short as one centimetre to identify up to 30 different metals such as mercury or copper.

Currently, blood tests will be used to identify whether someone has been overexposed to metals, but can only provide information on a person’s blood levels at the time the test is taken.

The university said Ms Gellein’s tests allow researchers to track exposure to metals over several weeks, months or even years, depending on the length of the hair.

“I’ve analysed hair strands as long as 36 centimetres for my research, and have found three years worth of information,” Ms Gellein said.

She said the hair analysis can also be used as a wider indicator of pollution in the area in which the patient lives.

Tore Syversen, a professor in the Department of Neuroscience at the university’s Faculty of Medicine – and one of the project coordinators – said the test’s biggest potential will be in helping to make the connection between environment and illness.

Neurologists believe that there may be a connection between trace metals and neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.

“The thing that is new with Gellein’s method is that we can measure many trace elements at the same time, and at extremely low levels,” Professor Syversen said.

“Because many trace elements are mutually dependent upon each other, this kind of multi-element analysis is a much better tool than what we have had in the past.”

The university said the tests use a highly specialised instrument that can detect trace metals at extremely low concentrations and are highly precise because of the way the samples are concentrated.

Kate Martin

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