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Lancet Neurol. 2003 Jul;2(7):429-34.

Convulsive ergotism: epidemics of the serotonin syndrome?

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Department of Medicine, University of Queensland, and the Royal Brisbane Hospital, Brisbane, Australia.


Between 1085 and 1927, epidemics of "convulsive ergotism" were widespread east of the Rhine in Europe due to consumption of grain contaminated with ergot, which is produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea. West of the Rhine, consumption of ergot-contaminated food caused epidemics of gangrenous ergotism. The clinical features of convulsive ergotism--muscle twitching and spasms, changes in mental state, hallucinations, sweating, and fever lasting for several weeks--suggest serotonergic overstimulation of the CNS (ie, the serotonin syndrome). The ergot alkaloids are serotonin agonists. Dihydroergotamine binds to serotonin receptors in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, which is the site of neuropathological changes in convulsive ergotism. Dihydroergotamine given to human beings can cause the serotonin syndrome. Ergots produced by different strains of Claviceps purpurea, and those growing in different soils, may have different ergot alkaloid compositions. An alkaloid, present in high concentrations in ergots from east of the Rhine, may have caused convulsive ergotism at a circulating concentration insufficient to produce peripheral ischaemia. The serotonin syndrome may, therefore, have been a public-health problem long before it was recognised as a complication of modern psychopharmacology.

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