Victoria Stanislawska

What are neurotoxins?

Have you ever heard of botox or seen a puffer fish? What do they have in common? 

The answer is neurotoxins. These are synthetic or naturally occurring substances which may harm or damage nerve tissue, being a potential threat to proper functioning of the peripheral and/or central nervous system.  Some neurotoxins are harmless in small concentrations, however, when their concentration increases over a certain value, they can become lethal. Examples of neurotoxins are: alpha-bungarotoxin (found in snake venom), latrotoxin (found in black widow spiders), and tetrodotoxin (in stomachs of puffer fish). However, let’s focus on a different neurotoxin: botulinum toxin. 

Botulinum toxin

It was first discovered in spoiled sausages during the 18th century, that’s why it was named after the Latin word: ‘botulus’for sausage. The toxin is produced by anaerobic bacteria known as: Clostridium botulinum, which are often found in water or plants. So, does that mean that consuming this water or plants can kill us? Well, not really and not solely! Only if the bacteria were to be oxygen deprived, in places such as closed cans or bottles, it could be a potential threat to us.


There are many types of botulinum toxins. The ones that are most popular and used commercially are Types A and B, these are also the most lethal types. So, what are the uses of this toxin and why do many scientists believe it is safe to use them? The substance is used in very small concentrations and highly diluted in saline to treat malfunctions of the human body, including muscle spasms, overreactive bladders, wrinkles, abnormal sweating, and many more. The substance is inserted into the patient through an injection into the specific 

location, depending on the treatment. 

Effects on the brain

If the injection were to be injected incorrectly, it would result in the death of the patient. This is because the toxin binds to nerves that require a neurotransmitter known as acetylcholine. A neurotransmitter is a chemical messenger that sends signals from a neuron to a specific cell via a synapse, they are crucial as they are one of the many things that keep us alive through controlling heart rate or even making us feel satisfied after eating enough food. Acetylcholine is used in the neuromuscular junction. The neuromuscular junction is a sort of synapse where muscle fibers interact with neuronal signals from the spinal cord or brain. While a synapse is like a very small pathway of space in between of two cells that use this area to communicate. Acetylcholine acts on your body constantly; through involuntary or voluntary movements such as peristalsis or just the simple movement of your hand while picking up a pencil. The toxin acidifies through a series of reactions/actions and causes an release of acetylcholine. Now that nerves can no longer send signals; all muscles are paralyzed leading to the disability of necessary actions such as breathing, which will result in a painful death. 

It is understandable why some scientists consider that the use of this toxin is dangerous as 1 gram of the pure substance is enough to kill 1 million people. Nevertheless, there is no concrete evidence that using this highly diluted substance for treatment is dangerous and as such it continues to be used. Some universities and research centres such as “The University of Wisconsin-Madison” & “NYU College of Dentistry”, are carrying out investigations regarding this topic, but no concrete data has been presented. 


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