Konzo and lathyrism are associated with consumption of cassava and grass pea, respectively. Cassava consumption has also been associated with a third disease, tropical ataxic neuropathy (TAN). This review presents a new unifying hypothesis on the causative agents for these diseases: namely, that they are nitriles, compounds containing cyano groups. The diseases may be caused by different but similar nitriles through direct neurotoxic actions not mediated by systemic cyanide release. Both cassava and Lathyrus contain nitriles, and other unidentified nitriles can be generated during food processing or in the human body. Available data indicate that several small nitriles cause a variety of neurotoxic effects. In experimental animals, 3,3'-iminodipropionitrile (IDPN), allylnitrile and cis-crotononitrile cause sensory toxicity, whereas hexadienenitrile and trans-crotononitrile induce selective neuronal degeneration in discrete brain regions. IDPN also induces a neurofilamentous axonopathy, and dimethylaminopropionitrile is known to cause autonomic (genito-urinary) neurotoxicity in both humans and rodents. Some of these actions depend on metabolic bioactivation of the parental nitriles, and sex- and species-dependent differences in susceptibility have been recorded. Recently, neuronal degeneration has been found in rats exposed to acetone cyanohydrin. Taken together, the neurotoxic properties of nitriles make them excellent candidates as causative agents for konzo, lathyrism and TAN.
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