Review: cholinergic mechanisms and epileptogenesis. The seizures induced by pilocarpine: a novel experimental model of intractable epilepsy

Synapse. 1989;3(2):154-71. doi: 10.1002/syn.890030207.


High-dose treatment with pilocarpine hydrochloride, a cholinergic muscarinic agonist, induces seizures in rodents following systemic or intracerebral administration. Pilocarpine seizures are characterized by a sequential development of behavioral patterns and electrographic activity. Hypoactivity, tremor, scratching, head bobbing, and myoclonic movements of the limbs progress to recurrent myoclonic convulsions with rearing, salivation, and falling, and status epilepticus. The sustained convulsions induced by pilocarpine are followed by widespread damage to the forebrain. The amygdala, thalamus, olfactory cortex, hippocampus, neocortex, and substantia nigra are the most sensitive regions to epilepsy-related damage following convulsions produced by pilocarpine. Spontaneous seizures are observed in the long-term period following the administration of convulsant doses of pilocarpine. Developmental studies show age-dependent differences in the response of rats to pilocarpine. Seizures are first noted in 7-12 day-old rats, and the adult pattern of behavioral and electroencephalographic sequelae of pilocarpine is seen in 15-21-day-old rats. During the third week of life the rats show an increased susceptibility to the convulsant action of pilocarpine relative to older and younger animals. The developmental progress of the convulsive response to pilocarpine does not correlate with evolution of the brain damage. The adult pattern of the damage is seen after a delay of 1-2 weeks in comparison with the evolution of seizures and status epilepticus. The susceptibility to seizures induced by pilocarpine increases in rats aged over 4 months. The basal ganglia curtail the generation and spread of seizures induced by pilocarpine. The caudate putamen, the substantia nigra, and the entopeduncular nucleus govern the propagation of pilocarpine-induced seizures. The antiepileptic drugs diazepam, clonazepam, phenobarbital, valproate, and trimethadione protect against pilocarpine-induced convulsions, while diphenylhydantoin and carbamazepine are ineffective. Ethosuximide and acetazolamide increase the susceptibility to convulsant action of pilocarpine. Lithium, morphine, and aminophylline also increase the susceptibility of rats to pilocarpine seizures. The pilocarpine seizure model may be of value in designing new therapeutic approaches to epilepsy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Cholinergic Fibers / drug effects
  • Cholinergic Fibers / metabolism
  • Cholinergic Fibers / physiology*
  • Disease Models, Animal*
  • Mice
  • Pilocarpine*
  • Rats
  • Seizures / chemically induced
  • Seizures / physiopathology*


  • Pilocarpine