Neurotoxicity occurs when the exposure to natural or manmade toxic substances (neurotoxicants) alters the normal activity of the nervous system. This can eventually disrupt or even kill neurons, key cells that transmit and process signals in the brain and other parts of the nervous system. Neurotoxicity can result from exposure to substances used in chemotherapy, radiation treatment, drug therapies, and organ transplants, as well as exposure to heavy metals such as lead and mercury, certain foods and food additives, pesticides, industrial and/or cleaning solvents, cosmetics, and some 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; headache; cognitive and behavioral problems; and sexual dysfunction. Individuals with certain disorders may be especially vulnerable to neurotoxicants.

Treatment involves eliminating or reducing exposure to the toxic substance, followed by symptomatic and supportive therapy.

The prognosis depends upon the length and degree of exposure and the severity of neurological injury. In some instances, exposure to neurotoxicants can be fatal. In others, patients may survive but not fully recover. In other situations, many individuals recover completely after treatment.

Prepared by the National Institutes of Health