April 9, 2008

Got Botox in Your Brain?

Okay, unlike past jokes about the sheer inanity of injecting a deadly toxin into your skin just to look younger, scientists in Italy have released some pretty serious research showing that yes, in fact, it could be a bad idea.

A new study in The Journal of Neuroscience finds that injected botulinum toxin, the key ingredient in Botox, can get transported across the membranes of muscle cells and into nearby terminals that send signals from nerves to the brain.

After injecting the toxin into the muscles around rats' whiskers, the study team saw its effects in the so-called facial nucleus, a cluster of neurons in the brain that is linked to the main nerve in the face. This would suggest that despite previous belief, botulinum may be a long-distance traveler, which would have very real implications for Botox users.

In case you had not heard, botulinum is a neurotoxin that is described by some experts as the most toxic protein known. The Wikipedia entry for botulinum morbidly notes that in theory, a few hundred grams could kill everyone on Earth.

The toxin is produced by bacteria and, when consumed, can lead to pretty severe food poisoning. According to the FDA, even tiny amounts of botulinum can induce weakness, paralysis, fatigue, dry mouth, and trouble swallowing.

To be fair, botulinum has its place in the pantheon of dangerous substances that can treat diseases: The drug has been used since the 1950s to combat ailments ranging from migraines to spastic disorders to excessive sweating. Botox wasn't approved by the FDA for cosmetic use until 2002, but it's quickly become one of the more common treatments among people seeking to fight the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.

So far Botox has been used with an assumption of safety, because the toxin is supposed to be localized at the injection site—it targets only the wrinkley bits and doesn't go traveling to other parts of the body.

The latest findings mean that the toxin could get into your brain, where it messes with a protein known as SNAP 25 that controls the release of neurotransmitters, chemicals that relay information from the brain to the rest of the body. Breaking apart SNAP 25 in the brain leads to paralysis.

The timing of this study's release is apropos, because in February the FDA announced a full-on safety review for Botox and one of its medicinal cousins, Myobloc, after at least 16 people died following injections.

While real people suffering from debilitating diseases might still consider botulinum treatments, I can only hope those seeking it for pure vanity might now think twice. Want my advice? Go read the Picture of Dorian Gray instead, and then go out and enjoy life.

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