Organophosphates/nerve agent poisoning: mechanism of action, diagnosis, prophylaxis, and treatment

Adv Clin Chem. 2004;38:151-216. doi: 10.1016/s0065-2423(04)38006-6.


OP/nerve agents are still considered as important chemicals acting on living organisms and are widely used. They are characterized according to their action as compounds influencing cholinergic nerve transmission via inhibition of AChE. Modeling of this action and extrapolation of experimental data from animals to humans is more possible for highly toxic agents than for the OP. The symptoms of intoxication comprise nicotinic, muscarinic, and central symptoms; for some OP/nerve agents, a delayed neurotoxicity is observed. Cholinesterases (AChE and BuChE) are characterized as the main enzymes involved in the toxic effect of these compounds, including molecular forms. The activity of both enzymes (and molecular forms) is influenced by inhibitors (reversible, irreversible, and allosteric) and other factors, such as pathological states. There are different methods for cholinesterase determination; however, the most frequent is the method based on the hydrolysis of thiocholine esters and subsequent detection of free SH-group of the released thiocholine. The diagnosis of OP/nerve agent poisoning is based on anamnesis, the clinical status of the intoxicated organism, and on cholinesterase determination in the blood. For nerve agent intoxication, AChE in the red blood cell is more diagnostically important than BuChE activity in the plasma. This enzyme is a good diagnostic marker for intoxication with OP pesticides. Some other biochemical examinations are recommended, especially arterial blood gas, blood pH, minerals, and some other specialized parameters usually not available in all clinical laboratories. These special examinations are important for prognosis of the intoxication, for effective treatment, and for retrospective analysis of the agent used for exposure. Some principles of prophylaxis against OP/nerve agent poisoning comprising the administration of reversible cholinesterase inhibitors such as pyridostigmine (alone or in combination with other drugs), scavengers such as preparations of cholinesterases, some therapeutic drugs, and possible combinations are given. Basic principles of the treatment of nerve agent OP poisoning are described. They are based on the administration of anticholinergics (mostly atropine but some other anticholinergics can be recommended) as a symptomatic treatment, cholinesterase reactivators as a causal treatment (different types but without a universal reactivator against all OP/nerve agents) as the first aid and medical treatment, and anticonvulsants, preferably diazepam though some other effective benzodiazepines are available. New drugs for the treatment are under experimental study based on new approaches to the mechanism of action. Future trends in the complex research of these compounds, which is important not only for the treatment of intoxication but also for the quantitative and qualitative increase of our knowledge of toxicology, neurochemistry, neuropharmacology, clinical biochemistry, and analytical chemistry in general, are characterized.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Organophosphate Poisoning*
  • Poisoning / diagnosis
  • Poisoning / drug therapy
  • Poisoning / prevention & control