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Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2005 May;19(3):433-46. doi: 10.1016/j.etap.2004.12.048.

Pharmacology and toxicology of cholinesterase inhibitors: uses and misuses of a common mechanism of action.

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264 McElroy Hall, College of Veterinary Medicine, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK 74078, USA.


Cholinesterase inhibitors have been used in the treatment of human diseases, the control of insect pests, and more notoriously as chemical warfare agents and weapons of terrorism. Most uses of cholinesterase inhibitors are based on a common mechanism of action initiated by inhibition of acetylcholinesterase (AChE). Extensive inhibition of this enzyme leads to accumulation of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and enhanced stimulation of postsynaptic cholinergic receptors. This action is beneficial in cases where a reduction in cholinergic transmission contributes to clinical symptoms, e.g., low muscle tone in the autoimmune disorder myasthenia gravis due to loss of nicotinic receptors. Under normal conditions, however, extensive inhibition of AChE leads to excess synaptic acetylcholine levels, over-stimulation of cholinergic receptors, alteration of postsynaptic cell function and consequent signs of cholinergic toxicity. This biochemical cascade forms the basis for the use of anticholinesterase insecticides in pest control as well as for nerve agents in chemical warfare. Paradoxically, the short-acting cholinesterase inhibitor pyridostigmine, an important therapeutic agent in the treatment of myasthenia gravis, was used during the Persian Gulf War to prevent the long-term clinical consequences of possible organophosphate nerve agent exposure. As shown in the attacks in Matsumoto and Tokyo, these same nerve agents can be effectively used to inflict urban terror. Cholinesterase inhibitors thus share a common mechanism of pharmacological or toxicological action, ultimately modifying cholinergic signaling through disruption of acetylcholine degradation. While the use of cholinesterase inhibitors relies on their interaction with AChE, a variety of reports indicate that a number of cholinesterase inhibitors have additional sites of action that may have pharmacologic or toxicologic relevance. A variety of esterase and non-esterase enzymes, neurotransmitter receptors and elements of cell signaling pathways are targeted by some anticholinesterases. In some cases, these actions may occur at concentrations/dosages below those affecting cholinergic transmission. Studies of interactive toxicity of binary mixtures of common organophosphorus insecticides indicate that non-cholinesterase targets may be important in cumulative toxicity. Exposure to multiple anticholinesterases having selective effects on other macromolecules could confound the assumption of additivity in cumulative risk assessment. Knowledge of such selective additional targets may aid, however, in the optimization of strategies for poisoning therapy and in the further elucidation of mechanisms of toxicity for this class of compounds.


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