Molecular mechanism of acrylamide neurotoxicity: lessons learned from organic chemistry

Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Dec;120(12):1650-7. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1205432. Epub 2012 Oct 11.


Background: Acrylamide (ACR) produces cumulative neurotoxicity in exposed humans and laboratory animals through a direct inhibitory effect on presynaptic function.

Objectives: In this review, we delineate how knowledge of chemistry provided an unprecedented understanding of the ACR neurotoxic mechanism. We also show how application of the hard and soft, acids and bases (HSAB) theory led to the recognition that the α,β-unsaturated carbonyl structure of ACR is a soft electrophile that preferentially forms covalent bonds with soft nucleophiles.

Methods: In vivo proteomic and in chemico studies demonstrated that ACR formed covalent adducts with highly nucleophilic cysteine thiolate groups located within active sites of presynaptic proteins. Additional research showed that resulting protein inactivation disrupted nerve terminal processes and impaired neurotransmission.

Discussion: ACR is a type-2 alkene, a chemical class that includes structurally related electrophilic environmental pollutants (e.g., acrolein) and endogenous mediators of cellular oxidative stress (e.g., 4-hydroxy-2-nonenal). Members of this chemical family produce toxicity via a common molecular mechanism. Although individual environmental concentrations might not be toxicologically relevant, exposure to an ambient mixture of type-2 alkene pollutants could pose a significant risk to human health. Furthermore, environmentally derived type-2 alkenes might act synergistically with endogenously generated unsaturated aldehydes to amplify cellular damage and thereby accelerate human disease/injury processes that involve oxidative stress.

Conclusions: These possibilities have substantial implications for environmental risk assessment and were realized through an understanding of ACR adduct chemistry. The approach delineated here can be broadly applied because many toxicants of different chemical classes are electrophiles that produce toxicity by interacting with cellular proteins.

Publication types

  • Evaluation Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acrylamide / chemistry*
  • Acrylamide / metabolism
  • Acrylamide / toxicity*
  • Algorithms
  • Animals
  • Ecotoxicology / methods*
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Nerve Endings / drug effects
  • Nerve Endings / metabolism
  • Nerve Endings / pathology
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / etiology*
  • Proteomics / methods*
  • Rats
  • Risk Assessment


  • Acrylamide