Olney's lesions

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Olney's lesions, also known as NMDA receptor antagonist neurotoxicity (NAN), are a potential form of brain damage. They are named after John Olney, who conducted a study in 1989 to investigate neurotoxicity caused by PCP and related drugs.[1]


In 1989, Olney et al. discovered that neuronal vacuolation and other cytotoxic changes ("lesions") occurred in brains of rats administered NMDA antagonists, including PCP, MK-801 (dizocilpine) and ketamine.[2] Examination of neurons in the posterior cingulate and retrosplenial cortices by electron micrograph revealed apparent lytic breakdown of mitochondria in the large vacuoles which had become apparent 2 hours after administration of an NMDA antagonist. After administration of 1.0 (mg/kg sc) MK-801 to rats, these neurotoxic changes became more apparent until about 12 hours post-dose, but the morphology of most cells appeared normal by light microscope about 24 hours post-dose. With 10 (mg/kg sc) doses of MK-801, the vacuolation reaction was still visible by light microscope 48 hours post-dose. After repeated doses of the NMDA antagonists MK-801 and PCP, the vacuolation reaction appeared consistent with the reaction after a single dose, so there was no evidence of a cumulative neurotoxic effect or that the reaction proceeded to an irreversible stage with repeated doses. The lowest doses of ketamine and tiletamine that produced neurotoxic changes visible by light microscope 4 hours post dose were 40 (mg/kg sc) and 10 (mg/kg sc), respectively. The potency of the drugs in producing these neurotoxic changes corresponded with their potency as NMDA antagonists: i.e. MK-801 > PCP > tiletamine > ketamine.

Researcher Roland N. Auer conducted similar studies to look at the correlation between age and sex and the development of NMDA receptor antagonist neurotoxicity in test rats. Older rats experienced a much higher mortality rate after the development of NAN. Female rats were found, at all ages, to have a higher incidence of necrotic (dead) neurons as a result of NAN.[3]

Nitrous oxide, a common anesthetic for humans (especially in dentistry), has also been shown to cause vacuolization in rats' brains, but caused no irreversible lesions.[4]

Dextromethorphan, a common antitussive often found in cough medicines, has been shown to cause vacuolization in rats' brains when administered at doses of 75 mg/kg.[5] However, oral administration of dextromethorphan hydrobromide (DXM HBr) to female rats in single doses as high as 120 mg/kg did not result in detectable neurotoxic changes at 4–6 hours or 24–26 hours post-dose (female rats are more sensitive to NMDA antagonist neurotoxicity).[6] The same researchers also found no evidence of neurotoxic changes in retrosplenial or cingulate cortices of male rats orally administered up to 400 mg/(kg day) DXM HBr or female rats orally administered 120 mg/(kg day) DXM HBr, both for 30 days. Carliss et al. (2007) also found that rats administered 9 mg/(kg day sc) (+)-MK-801 hydrogen maleate for 30 days did produce detectable vacuolation as expected. When 30 mg/(kg ip) dextrorphan was administered to male rats, neurotoxic changes were observed only 30 minutes post-dose.[7]

Even if the hypothesis of gross neural apoptosis proves to be false in humans, NMDA antagonists certainly have potential to permanently alter synaptic structure due to effects upon long term potentiation, which NMDA plays a crucial role in. Perhaps, with repeated usage, this would manifest, due to tolerance, thus downregulation, of the NMDA receptor system. This could feasibly alter the function/relationship of various structures, specifically the ventral visual stream, which is a likely cause of the anecdotal reports of hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) from such chronic users.

Olney's Lesions have not yet been proven or disproven to manifest in humans. No tests have been conducted to test the validity of post-dissociative development of vacuolization in human brain tissue, and critics claim that animal testing is not a reliable predictor of the effects of dissociative substances on humans:

The evidence is that ketamine and many other NMDA-receptor antagonists that have been tested in humans, cause an acute disturbance in neural circuitry that leads to psychotic manifestations. These same drugs cause the same disturbance in neural circuitry in rats and when we look at their brains we see evidence for physical neuronal injury. Since no one has looked at the brains of humans immediately after administering these drugs, we do not know whether the physical neuronal injury occurs.[8]

— John Olney, Private correspondence


In medical settings, NMDA receptor antagonists are used as anesthetics, so GABAA receptor positive allosteric modulators are used to effectively prevent any neurotoxicity caused by them.[9] Drugs that work to suppress NAN include anticholinergics,[10] benzodiazepines, barbiturates[11] and agonists at the alpha-2 adrenergic receptor in the brain, such as clonidine. Conversely, coadministration of NMDA-antagonists with alpha-2 adrenergic antagonists, like yohimbine could theoretically potentiate NAN.


In 2003, Cliff Anderson, a recreational researcher and critic, wrote an article for Erowid that illustrated that the tests conducted by Olney and Farber did not provide any conclusive evidence that lesions develop in human brains after exposure to dissociatives.[8] Anderson quoted Karl L. R. Jansen's book, Ketamine: Dreams and Realities, which cites unpublished studies on monkey brains. The opinion that DXM caused Olney's Lesions therefore came under fire. Jansen writes:

White therefore concluded that based on some fundamental differences between rat biology and human biology and because there have only been very few studies done on the occurrence of Olney's lesions, no connection can currently be proved or disproved.[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Olney J, Labruyere J, Price M (1989). "Pathological changes induced in cerebrocortical neurons by phencyclidine and related drugs". Science 244 (4910): 1360–2. doi:10.1126/science.2660263. PMID 2660263. 
  2. ^ Olney JW, Labruyere J, Price MT. (1989) Pathological Changes Induced in Cerebrocortical Neurons by Phencyclidine and Related Drugs. Science. 244: 1360 - 1362. PMID 2660263
  3. ^ Auer R (1996). "Effect of age and sex on N-methyl-D-aspartate antagonist-induced neuronal necrosis in rats". Stroke 27 (4): 743–6. doi:10.1161/01.str.27.4.743. PMID 8614941. 
  4. ^ Jevtovic-Todorovic V, Beals J, Benshoff N, Olney J (2003). "Prolonged exposure to inhalational anesthetic nitrous oxide kills neurons in adult rat brain". Neuroscience 122 (3): 609–16. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2003.07.012. PMID 14622904. 
  5. ^ Hashimoto, K; Tomitaka, S; Narita, N; Minabe, Y; Iyo, M; Fukui, S (1996). "Induction of heat shock protein Hsp70 in rat retrosplenial cortex following administration of dextromethorphan". Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology 1 (4): 235–239. doi:10.1016/1382-6689(96)00016-6. PMID 21781688. 
  6. ^ Carliss RD, Radovsky A, Chengelis CP, O'neill TP, Shuey DL (2007). "Oral administration of dextromethorphan does not produce neuronal vacuolation in the rat brain". NeuroToxicology 28 (4): 813–8. doi:10.1016/j.neuro.2007.03.009. PMID 17573115. 
  7. ^ Ortiz GG, Guerrero JM, Reiter RJ, Poeggeler BH, Bitzer-Quintero OK, Feria-Velasco A. (1999) Neurotoxicity of dextrorphan. Arch Med Res. 30: 125 - 127. PMID 10372446
  8. ^ a b Erowid DXM Vaults : Health : The Bad News Isn't In : A Look at Dissociative-Induced Brain Damage, by Anderson C
  9. ^ Nakao S, Nagata A, Masuzawa M, Miyamoto E, Yamada M, Nishizawa N, Shingu K (2003). "[NMDA receptor antagonist neurotoxicity and psychotomimetic activity]". Masui 52 (6): 594–602. PMID 12854473. 
  10. ^ [D.Wozniak - NMDA Antagonist Neurotoxicity: Mechanism and Prevention]
  11. ^ Olney J, Labruyere J, Wang G, Wozniak D, Price M, Sesma M (1991). "NMDA antagonist neurotoxicity: mechanism and prevention". Science 254 (5037): 1515–8. doi:10.1126/science.1835799. PMID 1835799. 
  12. ^ Jansen, Karl. Ketamine: Dreams and Realities. MAPS, 2004. ISBN 0-9660019-7-4
  13. ^ Erowid DXM Vault : Response to "The Bad News Isn't In": Please Pass The Crow, by William E. White

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