Botox (onabotulinumtoxinA) mechanism of action

Mitchell F. Brin, Rami Burstein

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Studies in the 1920s found that botulinum neurotoxin type A (BoNT/A) inhibited the activity of motor and parasympathetic nerve endings, confirmed several decades later to be due to decreased acetylcholine release. The 1970s were marked by studies of cellular mechanisms aided by use of neutralizing antibodies as pharmacologic tools: BoNT/A disappeared from accessibility to neutralizing antibodies within minutes, although it took several hours for onset of muscle weakness. The multi-step mechanism was experimentally confirmed and is now recognized to consist broadly of binding to nerve terminals, internalization, and lysis or cleavage of a protein (SNAP-25: synaptosomal associated protein-25 kDa) that is part of the SNARE (Soluble NSF Attachment protein REceptor) complex needed for synaptic vesicle docking and fusion. Clinical use of the BoNT/A product onabotulinumtoxinA was based on its ability to reduce muscle contractions via inhibition of acetylcholine from motor terminals. Sensory mechanisms of onabotulinumtoxinA have now been identified, supporting its successful treatment of chronic migraine and urgency in overactive bladder. Exploration into migraine mechanisms led to anatomical studies documenting pain fibers that send axons through sutures of the skull to outside the head - a potential route by which extracranial injections could affect intracranial processes. Several clinical studies have also identified benefits of onabotulinumtoxinA in major depression, which have been attributed to central responses induced by feedback from facial muscle and skin movement. Overall, the history of BoNT/A is distinguished by basic science studies that stimulated clinical use and, conversely, clinical observations that spurred basic research into novel mechanisms of action.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E32372
JournalMedicine (United States)
StatePublished - 1 Jul 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • SNAP-25
  • TRPV1
  • botulinum toxin
  • chronic migraine
  • depression
  • overactive bladder
  • skin quality


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