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‌Individual Research Project

‌Age and Sex Effects on Nerve Agent Damage to the Brain and Antidotal Therapies [U01 NS059344-01]

P.I. Edson X. Albuquerque, M.D., Ph.D.  


Intoxication with organophosphorus compounds (OPs), which are largely used as insecticides and chemical warfare agents, is a major health concern worldwide. Based on the concept that OP toxicity results primarily from heightened cholinergic activity due to the irreversible cholinesterase (ChE) inhibition, prophylaxis consists of the use of pyridostigmine, a reversible ChE inhibitor, and atropine, a muscarinic receptor antagonist. Because pyridostigmine crosses the blood-brain barrier very poorly, additional treatment with benzodiazepines is necessary to halt the convulsions that arise from the OPs' actions in the brain.


We have shown that galantamine, a drug used to treat patients with mild-to-moderate Alzheimer's disease and that acts as both a ChE inhibitor and a nicotinic allosteric potentiating ligand (APL), is an effective prophylactic treatment for OP intoxication. Peripubertal male guinea pigs pre-treated with galantamine and subsequently challenged with sarin or soman survive indefinitely without any signs of toxicity. In this study we are using a multidisciplinary approach to determine whether galantamine, with or without the muscarinic antagonist atropine, can counteract the immediate (up to 24 h) and delayed (7 to 30 days) toxicity of nerve agents in guinea pigs of both sexes at different ages.


Galantamine has the potential to afford complete protection of U.S. forces and the general population against the toxic effects of OPs. In the battlefield, timely provision of efficient countermeasures to prevent and/or treat intoxication with nerve agents is essential to preserve and sustain combat effectiveness of the soldiers.


Research Results

  • Galantamine is an effective medical countermeasure against nerve agent and OP insecticide poisoning in peripubertal male guinea pigs.

  • Continuing research in this area is revealing that female guinea pigs are more sensitive than male guinea pigs to the toxicity of nerve agents and that the treatment with galantamine is as efficacious in female as it is in male guinea pigs.

  • Treatment with galantamine counteracts the neuronal damage and the impairment in synaptic transmission and plasticity induced by OPs.

  • The effectiveness of galantamine has been attributed in part to its differential inhibitory effect in brain and blood AChE, its selectivity to AChE compared to BuChE, its competitive antagonism of KYNA (whose levels in the brain are increased by OPs), and its ability to activate cell survival pathways.

  • The use of galantamine as an antidote against OP poisoning is protected under the International Patent Application PCT/US05/33789 filed on 9/23/05, and the patent is currently being licensed by UMB.



Nicotinic Ligands in Ancient History

Nicotine was detected in hair, soft tissue, and bone tissue samples from Egyptian mummies dated between 1070 BC and 395 AD at quantities similar to those found in modern addicts (Balabanova et al., 1992). In Homer's epic poem, the Odyssey, Hermes counseled Odysseus to use "moly" to save his crew from Circe's poison. Circe's poison could have been scopolamine, which is found in the extracts from the plant Datura stramonium. The antidote may well have been an extract of the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis, below), which contains galantamine.