Neural sensitization and physiological markers in multiple chemical sensitivity

Iris R. Bell, Gary E. Schwartz, Carol M. Baldwin, Elizabeth E. Hardin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Scopus citations


This paper summarizes the key features of the olfactory-limbic, neural sensitization model for multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) and presents relevant data on chemically intolerant human subjects from laboratory studies using quantitative electroencephalography, polysomnography, neuropsychological tests, cardiovascular measurements, and blood markers. MCS is a poorly understood chronic, polysymptomatic condition in which some prior controlled research studies have failed to find evidence to differentiate active from placebo tests. Closer examination of past MCS research, however, reveals that studies have failed to incorporate the design and methodological approaches necessary to test for nonimmunological sensitization. Time-dependent sensitization (TDS) is a well-documented phenomenon in the pharmacology literature involving the progressive increase in a given response by the passage of time between the initial and subsequent exposures to a substance or a stressor. As in MCS, multiple, chemically unrelated agents can trigger TDS. Females time-sensitize more readily than do males. Pharmacological and nonpharmacological (stress) stimuli can cross-sensitize. Dopaminergic pathways in the brain and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis are likely involved in TDS. Data on the symptomatology of MCS point to central nervous system involvement, including limbic regions that receive input from both olfactory (odor) and trigeminal (irritant) pathways. Limbic and mesolimbic brain regions are among the most sensitizable to repeated, intermittent environmental stimuli. Sensitizable individuals can show no difference or lesser responses to a test substance on initial exposure, but later exhibit much greater increases in responsivity on the next exposure after a period of days. For future research, it is essential to distinguish chemical intolerance symptoms such as derealization, sudden mood changes, musculoskeletal pain, menstrual dysfunction, and uncontrollable sleepiness from chemical phobia and avoidance behaviors. This model permits hypothesis-driven research on MCS and has major implications for interpretation of apparently positive and negative tests for "true" as opposed to "perceived" sensitivity to low levels of environmental chemicals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)s39-s47
JournalRegulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology
Issue number1 II
StatePublished - 1996

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology


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