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Eur Neurol. 2005;53(1):3-9. Epub 2005 Jan 12.

Botulinum toxin: mechanisms of action.

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Department of Neurology, Rostock University, Rostock, Germany.


Botulinum toxin (BT) has been perceived as a lethal threat for many centuries. In the early 1980s, this perception completely changed when BT's therapeutic potential suddenly became apparent. We wish to give an overview over BT's mechanisms of action relevant for understanding its therapeutic use. BT's molecular mode of action includes extracellular binding to glycoprotein structures on cholinergic nerve terminals and intracellular blockade of the acetylcholine secretion. BT affects the spinal stretch reflex by blockade of intrafusal muscle fibres with consecutive reduction of Ia/II afferent signals and muscle tone without affecting muscle strength (reflex inhibition). This mechanism allows for antidystonic effects not only caused by target muscle paresis. BT also blocks efferent autonomic fibres to smooth muscles and to exocrine glands. Direct central nervous system effects are not observed, since BT does not cross the blood-brain barrier and since it is inactivated during its retrograde axonal transport. Indirect central nervous system effects include reflex inhibition, normalisation of reciprocal inhibition, intracortical inhibition and somatosensory evoked potentials. Reduction of formalin-induced pain suggests direct analgesic BT effects possibly mediated by blockade of substance P, glutamate and calcitonin gene-related peptide.

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