Phenytoin: neuroprotection or neurotoxicity?

Neurol Sci. 2017 Jun;38(6):1137-1141. doi: 10.1007/s10072-017-2993-7. Epub 2017 May 11.


Phenytoin is an 80-year young molecule and new indications are still emerging. The neuroprotective potential of phenytoin has been evaluated for decades. Recently, a positive phase II trial supported its further development in the treatment of optic neuritis in multiple sclerosis. In 1942, however, peripheral neuritis was first reported to be an adverse event of phenytoin, and since then a small but steady stream of publications discussed peripheral polyneuropathy as being a possible adverse event of phenytoin. We have reviewed the literature and concluded there is some supportive evidence for a reversible polyneuropathy after the oral use of phenytoin, though with no evidence for clear neurotoxicity on the level of peripheral nerves. This is probably due to the fact that the pharmacological effects of phenytoin, based on the stabilizing effect of the voltage-gated sodium channels, make impairment of nerve conduction in asymptomatic and symptomatic reversible polyneuropathies plausible. Clear toxically-induced phenytoin-related polyneuropathies, however, are extremely rare and are always related to high dose or high plasma levels of phenytoin, mostly developing during many years of therapy. We could only find one case of a probable reversible chronic phenytoin intoxication resulting in a biopsy proven axonal atrophy with secondary demyelination and signs of remyelination. All case series and case reports published are insufficient in detail to prove a clear causal relation between phenytoin intake and the induction of a peripheral polyneuropathy. Phenytoin does not lead to irreversible toxicity of the peripheral nerves and might, on the other hand, have neuroprotective properties.

Keywords: Neuropathic pain; Neuropathy; Neuroprotection; Neurotoxicity; Phenytoin; Side effects; Toxicology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Neuroprotective Agents / administration & dosage*
  • Neuroprotective Agents / toxicity*
  • Neurotoxicity Syndromes / metabolism
  • Phenytoin / administration & dosage*
  • Phenytoin / toxicity*


  • Neuroprotective Agents
  • Phenytoin