Dextromethorphan and other N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor antagonists are teratogenic in the avian embryo model

Pediatr Res. 1998 Jan;43(1):1-7. doi: 10.1203/00006450-199801000-00001.


N-Methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors are a calcium-conducting class of excitatory amino acid receptors that are involved in neuronal development and migration. Certain well known teratogens (e.g. homocysteine, ethanol, and chloroform) that induce congenital neural tube and neural crest defects also have the capacity to act as NMDA receptor antagonists. We hypothesized that teratogenicity was a general property of NMDA receptor antagonists, and that high affinity NMDA receptor antagonists would induce neural tube and neural crest defects. Chicken embryos were given 5, 50, or 500 nmol/d of selected NMDA receptor antagonists for 3 consecutive days during the process of neural tube closure, beginning 4 h after the beginning of incubation. Selected NMDA receptor antagonists represented three classes of antagonists: ion channel blockers, glycine site antagonists, and glutamate site agonists and antagonists. All classes of NMDA receptor antagonists induced embryonic death and congenital defects of the neural crest and neural tube; however, the channel blockers were the most potent teratogens. Dextromethorphan at 500 nmol/embryo/d killed more than half the embryos and induced congenital defects in about one-eighth of the survivors; dextromethorphan was also highly lethal at 50 nmol/embryo/d. Glutamate site NMDA receptor agonists (NMDA and homoquinolinic acid) displayed weak toxicity relative to their known NMDA receptor potency. Taken together, these data indicate that NMDA receptor antagonists, particularly channel blockers, are potent teratogens in the chicken embryo model. Because dextromethorphan is a widely used nonprescription antitussive, its strong teratogeneticity using this model is particularly noteworthy.

Publication types

  • Comment
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Drug-Induced
  • Animals
  • Chick Embryo
  • Dextromethorphan / toxicity*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / drug effects*
  • Embryo, Nonmammalian / pathology
  • N-Methylaspartate / toxicity
  • Quinolinic Acids / toxicity
  • Receptors, Amino Acid / antagonists & inhibitors*
  • Teratogens / toxicity*


  • Quinolinic Acids
  • Receptors, Amino Acid
  • Teratogens
  • aspartic acid receptor
  • homoquinolinic acid
  • N-Methylaspartate
  • Dextromethorphan