Lathyrism: A neurotoxic disease

P. S. Spencer, H. H. Schaumburg

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92 Scopus citations


Lathyrism, one of the oldest neurotoxic diseases known to Man, results from excessive consumption of the chickling pea, Lathyrus sativus, and certain related species. Once prevalent throughout Europe, N. Africa, Middle East and parts of the Far East, the disease is presently restricted to India, Bangladesh and Ethiopia. Lathyrism is a form of irreversible, non-progressive spastic paraparesis associated with poorly understood degenerative changes in spinal cord. Domestic animals, notably the horse, also develop hindlimb paralysis after prolonged feeding on lathyrus fodder. Experimental animal models of lathyrism have been reported but none has been satisfactorily investigated, and concurrence between these experimental diseases and the human condition is unproven. The culpable agent in lathyrus species that precipitates paralysis is also unknown. Current attention is focused on the glutamate analog, beta-(N)-oxalylamino-L-alanine acid (BOAA). While this compound is present in those lathyrus species that induce spastic paraparesis and, in large doses, reportedly causes neuropathological changes similar to glutamate neurotoxicity, there is little to compare these neuropathological changes with those found in human lathyrism. Chronic primate feeding studies utilizing BOAA need to be carried out to determine whether this agent is responsible for human lathyrism. Some species of lathyrus, notably Lathyrus odoratus, are unable to induce human lathyrism but contain a compound, beta-aminopropionitrile (BAPN), that induces pathological changes in bone ('osteolathyrism') and blood vessels ('angiolathyrism') of experimental animals without damaging the nervous system. However, related compounds, dimethylaminopropionitrile (DMAPN) and beta, beta'-iminodipropionitrile (IDPN), are chronic neurotoxins in humans and animals, respectively. There is no known relationship between lathyrism and the neurodegenerative conditions associated with these compounds, and neither DMAPN or IDPN are known to be present in lathyrus species. Use of the term 'lathyrogen' to describe the experimental toxic properties of BAPN and IDPN is therefore confusing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)625-629
Number of pages5
JournalNeurobehavioral Toxicology and Teratology
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1983

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Embryology
  • Toxicology


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