Neurotoxicity is a form of toxicity in which a biological, chemical, or physical agent produces an adverse effect on the structure or function of the central and/or peripheral nervous system. It occurs when exposure to a substance – specifically, a neurotoxin or neurotoxicant– alters the normal activity of the nervous system in such a way as to cause permanent or reversible damage to nervous tissue. This can eventually disrupt or even kill neurons, which are cells that transmit and process signals in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Neurotoxicity can result from organ transplants, radiation treatment, certain drug therapies (e.g., substances used in chemotherapy), recreational drug use, and exposure to heavy metals, bites from certain species of venomous snakes, pesticides, certain industrial cleaning solvents, fuels and certain naturally occurring substances. Symptoms may appear immediately after exposure or be delayed. They may include limb weakness or numbness, loss of memory, vision, and/or intellect, uncontrollable obsessive and/or compulsive behaviors, delusions, headache, cognitive and behavioral problems and sexual dysfunction. Chronic mold exposure in homes can lead to neurotoxicity which may not appear for months to years of exposure. All symptoms listed above are consistent with mold mycotoxin accumulation.

The term neurotoxicity implies the involvement of a neurotoxin; however, the term neurotoxic may be used more loosely to describe states that are known to cause physical brain damage, but where no specific neurotoxin has been identified.

The presence of neurocognitive deficits alone is not usually considered sufficient evidence of neurotoxicity, as many substances may impair neurocognitive performance without resulting in the death of neurons. This may be due to the direct action of the substance, with the impairment and neurocognitive deficits being temporary, and resolving when the substance is eliminated from the body. In some cases the level or exposure-time may be critical, with some substances only becoming neurotoxic in certain doses or time periods. Some of the most common naturally occurring brain toxins that lead to neurotoxicity as a result of excessive drug use are beta amyloid (Aβ), glutamate, dopamine, and oxygen radicals. When present in high concentrations, they can lead to neurotoxicity and death (apoptosis). Some of the symptoms that result from cell death include loss of motor control, cognitive deterioration and autonomic nervous system dysfunction. Additionally, neurotoxicity has been found to be a major cause of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's disease (AD).

Neurotoxic agents

Beta amyloid

Aβ was found to cause neurotoxicity and cell death in the brain when present in high concentrations. Aβ results from a mutation that occurs when protein chains are cut at the wrong locations, resulting in chains of different lengths that are unusable. Thus they are left in the brain until they are broken down, but if enough accumulate, they form plaques which are toxic to neurons. Aβ uses several routes in the central nervous system to cause cell death. An example is through the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAchRs), which is a receptor commonly found along the surfaces of the cells that respond to nicotine stimulation, turning them on or off. Aβ was found manipulating the level of nicotine in the brain along with the MAP kinase, another signaling receptor, to cause cell death. Another chemical in the brain that Aβ regulates is JNK; this chemical halts the extracellular signal-regulated kinases (ERK) pathway, which normally functions as memory control in the brain. As a result, this memory favoring pathway is stopped, and the brain loses essential memory function. The loss of memory is a symptom of neurodegenerative disease, including AD. Another way Aβ causes cell death is through the phosphorylation of AKT; this occurs as the element phosphate is bound to several sites on the protein. This phosphorylation allows AKT to interact with BAD, a protein known to cause cell death. Thus an increase in Aβ results in an increase of the AKT/BAD complex, in turn stopping the action of the anti-apoptotic protein Bcl-2, which normally functions to stop cell death, causing accelerated neuron breakdown and the progression of AD.


Glutamate is a chemical found in the brain that poses a toxic threat to neurons when found in high concentrations. This concentration equilibrium is extremely delicate and is usually found in millimolar amounts extracellularly. When disturbed, an accumulation of glutamate occurs as a result of a mutation in the glutamate transporters, which act like pumps to drain glutamate from the brain. This causes glutamate concentration to be several times higher in the blood than in the brain; in turn, the body must act to maintain equilibrium between the two concentrations by pumping the glutamate out of the bloodstream and into the neurons of the brain. In the event of a mutation, the glutamate transporters are unable to pump the glutamate back into the cells; thus a higher concentration accumulates at the glutamate receptors. This opens the ion channels, allowing calcium to enter the cell causing excitotoxicity. Glutamate results in cell death by turning on the N-methyl-D-aspartic acid receptors (NMDA); these receptors cause an increased release of calcium ions (Ca2+) into the cells. As a result, the increased concentration of Ca2+ directly increases the stress on mitochondria, resulting in excessive oxidative phosphorylation and production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) via the activation of nitric oxide synthase, ultimately leading to cell death. Aβ was also found aiding this route to neurotoxicity by enhancing neuron vulnerability to glutamate.

Media contacts,
Managing Editor
Journal of Brain Research