Does Botox spread to your brain? (Warning: most…boring…post…ever)

A few days ago, I posted about Botox, and in the comments section a recent Journal of Neuroscience study that’s received attention was referenced.  The media pounced on this study…however, certain details have been magnified and others minimized for the sake of sensationalism, er, information.  This blog lays out the crucial information; I had to reread it about seventy-five times to process, but the gist is below:

Botox is the market name for a type of botulinum toxin (botulinum toxin type A) made by Allergan.  Others exist, like Myobloc—Botox is simply the most popular.  Botox et al. aim to paralyze facial muscles, stopping movement; you already know this.  To move muscles, your nerves release a neurotransmitter (acetylcholine, but let’s just call it Susan) that sends signals to the brain.  There’s a critical molecule in this process, necessary to make Susan do her signaling thing; let’s call this molecule—SNAP-25—Larry.  (Hey, why not?) Botox alters Larry, stopping him from releasing the muscle-moving Susan.  (God, I already have a headache just rereading this.)

This recent study did not measure levels of Botox; levels of Botox after injections are so minute and hard-to-detect that the study had to measure Larry, instead.  What the study actually found was that altered versions of Larry affected by the Botox moved back and forth between Susan’s homebase and neurons controlling whisker movement (lab rats, I remind you).  The Botox itself was not measured.

All of the hullabaloo is resulting because this study discredits (or strongly appears to discredit!) Allergan and the FDA’s earlier claims that botulinium toxin type A was completely broken down once injected.  It now appears that traces remain–minimal, but there all the same. Does the study prove that the Botox “poison” seeps into your brain?  No, it does not.  It does, however, proves that traces of Larry are found and altered in the brain as a result of Botox injections.  And, yes, I do think that’s troubling.

Here’s my take on Larry versus Botox: it’s a small distinction, but a crucial one.  In science, “God” is in the details, after all. To be fair, this study not only piqued my interest but gave me serious pause; I now have my ear firmly to the ground, waiting to hear further results.  I’m not, nor have I ever been, an alarmist—it’s simply not in my nature.  (I’m open-minded and fact-weighing to a fault; call it my Libra rising!)  Will I stop using Botox based upon this one study?  No, I admit—I will not. Will I stop using Botox if conclusive evidence comes to light showing that all users are at a statistically significant risk of (insert terrible medical horror here)?  You bet your ass (and all your frown lines!)

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  1. e.

    Hi Jolie, thanks for addressing the J. Neuroscience study in more detail. Kudos for trying to read through all the science. I’m in grad school for neuroscience and a lot of those articles are hard for me to process, so I can only imagine how many times you had to read over this stuff! I love the “susan” and “Larry” names.

    However (sorry the nerdy scientist in me has to point it out) just one small correction to your interpretation – Susan (Ach) sends nerve signals to the muscles, not to the brain. Muscles then interpret the Susan and result in contractions that cause movements. The issue in this study is that it’s possible for some signals to move backwards along the neurons, to go back to the brain. So the concern comes from whether or not the Botox, which is injected into the muscles, could potentially move backwards and get to the brain.

    Otherwise, good job with your analysis. Whenever there is media hype about medical issues, I like to go back to the original study – usually, the media totally misconstrues things. Hope you don’t mind my nerdy correction – I love reading all your beauty tips, as I’m definitely not an expert in that area, so just thought I’d share some of my science knowledge :)

  2. Mavis

    It SO figures! Botox is almost too good to be true! My fear is they will find out that is does whatever medical tragedy its sure havoc upon us…in about 20 years! Alzheimers anyone?! Perhaps the old-fashioned knife option isn’t so bad afterall… Nadine, do you have any information on brow lifts– the endoscopic, virtually painless, very minor, ever-so-subtle, lifting kind for the squeamish?

  3. Hunny1au

    Why dont we grow old gracefully like our forefathers and mothers. No one gave a hoot and people looked like people, not like wax mannequins on crack!! Its a shame those days are gone and society now brainwashes us to believe we have to look like the after shot in an airbrushing session at Vogue 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Life has become so superficial compared to 50 or 60 years ago. If it aint broke, DONT FIX IT. People will have a lot of time to regret this stuff in a cancer ward.