Methylxanthines, seizures, and excitotoxicity

Handb Exp Pharmacol. 2011;(200):251-66. doi: 10.1007/978-3-642-13443-2_9.


Clinical evidence, in particular the wide use of theophylline as a bronchodilator, suggests that methylxanthines can cause seizures in patients without known underlying epilepsy. Theophylline is also known to be an added risk factor for seizure exacerbation in patients with epilepsy. The proconvulsant activity of methylxanthines can best be explained by their antagonizing the brain's own anticonvulsant adenosine. Recent evidence suggests that adenosine dysfunction is a pathological hallmark of epilepsy contributing to seizure generation and seizure spread. Conversely, adenosine augmentation therapies are effective in seizure suppression and prevention, whereas adenosine receptor antagonists such as methylxanthines generally exacerbate seizures. The impact of the methylxanthines caffeine and theophylline on seizures and excitotoxicity depends on timing, dose, and acute versus chronic use. New findings suggest a role of free radicals in theophylline-induced seizures, and adenosine-independent mechanisms for seizure generation have been proposed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adenosine / deficiency
  • Adenosine / physiology
  • Animals
  • Caffeine / toxicity
  • Humans
  • Neurotoxins / toxicity*
  • Seizures / chemically induced*
  • Theophylline / toxicity
  • Xanthines / toxicity*


  • Neurotoxins
  • Xanthines
  • methylxanthine
  • Caffeine
  • Theophylline
  • Adenosine