An Overview on the Effect of Neonicotinoid Insecticides on Mammalian Cholinergic Functions through the Activation of Neuronal Nicotinic Acetylcholine Receptors

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2020 May 6;17(9):3222. doi: 10.3390/ijerph17093222.


Neonicotinoid insecticides are used worldwide and have been demonstrated as toxic to beneficial insects such as honeybees. Their effectiveness is predominantly attributed to their high affinity for insect neuronal nicotinic acetylcholine receptors (nAChRs). Mammalian neuronal nAChRs are of major importance because cholinergic synaptic transmission plays a key role in rapid neurotransmission, learning and memory processes, and neurodegenerative diseases. Because of the low agonist effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on mammalian neuronal nAChRs, it has been suggested that they are relatively safe for mammals, including humans. However, several lines of evidence have demonstrated that neonicotinoid insecticides can modulate cholinergic functions through neuronal nAChRs. Major studies on the influence of neonicotinoid insecticides on cholinergic functions have been conducted using nicotine low-affinity homomeric α7 and high-affinity heteromeric α4β2 receptors, as they are the most abundant in the nervous system. It has been found that the neonicotinoids thiamethoxam and clothianidin can activate the release of dopamine in rat striatum. In some contexts, such as neurodegenerative diseases, they can disturb the neuronal distribution or induce oxidative stress, leading to neurotoxicity. This review highlights recent studies on the mode of action of neonicotinoid insecticides on mammalian neuronal nAChRs and cholinergic functions.

Keywords: ACh; cholinergic functions; modulation; neonicotinoid insecticides; nicotinic receptors.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cholinergic Agents
  • Humans
  • Insecticides / pharmacology*
  • Mammals
  • Neonicotinoids / pharmacology*
  • Rats
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / drug effects*
  • Receptors, Nicotinic / metabolism


  • Cholinergic Agents
  • Insecticides
  • Neonicotinoids
  • Receptors, Nicotinic