New Research From Harvard Looks at Botox Safety

Botox is being used to treat everything from headaches to excessive sweating, and Harvard is studying its safety.

Woman getting a shot photo via Shutterstock

Woman getting a shot photo via Shutterstock

With all the new studies out on Botox—it treats depression!—and what it does besides smooth wrinkles—it stops excessive sweating!—and sometimes give people a Joker/duck face—it can treat overactive bladder!—we knew it was only a matter of time before some harsher light was shed on the toxin. Because that is what it is after all, a toxin. Botulinum toxins are a food poison and bioterror threat. Just a small amount of the toxin can block signals from nerve cells that control muscles and people die when the toxin paralyzes the muscles they need to breathe.

According to new research from Harvard Medical School, there are seven major botulinum types. Type A and B are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for therapeutic and cosmetic uses, but other types are being explored as well. Harvard researchers investigated the effect that all seven toxins have on neurons and discovered that not all are safe.

The study, recently published in Nature Communications, reports that two of the seven botulinum toxins, type C and type E, induce degeneration of both cultured rodent neurons and human motor neurons derived from embryonic stem cells. The studies lead author is quoted:

“Botulinum toxins are not expected to cause death of neurons if they just block signals between neurons and muscles, which is the well-established mode of action for this class of toxins,” said Min Dong, HMS independent instructor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunobiology and the Division of Neuroscience at the New England Primate Research Center, and senior author of the paper. “It has been observed since as early as the 1980s that neurons die after exposure to type C toxin. The mechanism remains a mystery, but it raises a red flag as to whether botulinum toxins may affect additional neuronal functions.”

The findings on Botox, or type A, are more complicated, according to the study. Botox attacks but does not induce death of neurons. Clinical data has also demonstrated that Botox is safe for neuron survival in patients. But the safety of type A toxin is not absolute, the scientists found. Dong also says that:

“Botox is safe in general,” Dong said, “but it can cause the death of neurons when we introduce mutations in SNAP-25 in our experiments. Whether this can occur in rare cases in patients needs to be studied further.”

The bottom line is that Botox is approved by the FDA and one of the cosmetic industries biggest cash cows. Botox sales were $475 million in Allergan’s (the maker of Botox) fourth quarter alone. And with new research coming out everyday on Botox treating everything from chronic migraines to bladder problems, let’s hope that all the new research is good news.



  • Rhys Branman

    One must be careful with off label uses of any drug until the research is done. So far Botox has a history of medical uses – and hopefully a helpful future. Henry Winkler was endorsing Botox to improve Upper Limb Spasticity, which can occur after a stroke such as his mother had. A study was published in a British medical journal that stated Botox can have a lasting impact on incontinence caused by overactive bladder syndrome. Botox is being used for tooth grinding or clenching (bruxism), TMJ (temporomandibular joint disorder), and even excess salivation. As stated in this article, Botox has also been found helpful for migraine headaches.Research showed that during a migraine attack, the muscles in the forehead, temples and the back of the head contract. In the late 1980s the FDA approved Botox for use in the syndromes of blepharospasm (uncontrolled blinking) and strabismus (lazy eye). Botox is now being used for the treatment of excessive perspiration. Restless Leg Syndrome can be helped with Botox. Botox is also being used for a certain type of neck spasm called cervical dystonia. Botox is even being researched for possible use to help with asthma and obesity. And now a surgeon has used Botox to help heal John Mayer’s vocal chords in combination with surgery! Botox just seems to be useful for more and more medical symptoms.

    Dr. Rhys Branman
    Little Rock Cosmetic Surgery Center

    • Bill Rabara

      Dr. Branman,

      You comment has nothing to do with the article. The article is on safety concerns of Botox, not it’s potentially beneficial usages.

  • Sisumomma

    Dangerous product, my niece died this week after injections of botox.

  • JeromeN

    SIsumomma, You lie. Your niece did not Die from Botox.

  • Anthony

    Anyone know someone who has had Botox treatment for Musicians Dystonia? Also call Focal Dystonia? I am slated to have injections in my arm and hand in a month (October)
    and I’m concerned about risk vs. benefits…Thanks..