Botox: The Drug That’s Treating Everything
January 05, 2017
During a recent therapy session, one of Dr. Norman Rosenthal’s regulars said he was considering suicide. It wasn’t the first time the patient had entertained the thought, and even though he was on antidepressants and always kept up with his appointments, Rosenthal, a licensed psychiatrist with a private practice in North Bethesda, Md., wanted to offer his patient something else.
“I think you should get Botox,” Rosenthal told him. “You should schedule an appointment on your way home.”
It was peculiar advice coming from a shrink, but not without precedent. In 2014, Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Dr. Eric Finzi, an assistant professor of psychiatry at George Washington School of Medicine, published a study showing that when people with major depression got Botox, they reported fewer symptoms six weeks later than people who had been given placebo injections. “I’m always on the lookout for things that are unusual and interesting for depression,” says Rosenthal, who is widely considered an expert on the condition. “I’ve found Botox to be helpful, but it’s still not mainstream.”
Botox is a neurotoxin derived from the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Ingested in contaminated food, it can interfere with key muscles in the body, causing paralysis and even death. But when injected in tiny doses into targeted areas, it can block signals between nerves and muscles, causing the muscles to relax. That’s how it smooths wrinkles: when you immobilize the muscles that surround fine lines, those lines are less likely to move–making them less noticeable. It’s also why it’s FDA-approved to treat an overactive bladder: Botox can prevent involuntary muscle contractions that can cause people to feel like they have to pee even when they don’t.
“In the majority of these cases, it’s the doctors at the front line who start using Botox off-label, and then we see the treatment of things we never expected the toxin to work for,” says Min Dong, a researcher at Harvard Medical School who studies botulinum toxins in the lab and has no financial ties to Allergan. “I meet with physicians who are using the toxin everywhere–for diseases you would never know about.”
The drug has come a long way since its ability to smooth facial wrinkles was first discovered, by accident. In the 1970s, ophthalmologist Dr. Alan B. Scott started studying the toxin as a therapy for people with a medical condition that rendered them cross-eyed. “Some of these patients that would come would kind of joke and say, ‘Oh, Doctor, I’ve come to get the lines out.’ And I would laugh, but I really wasn’t tuned in to the practical, and valuable, aspect of that,” Scott told CBS in 2012. Scott named the drug Oculinum and formed a company of the same name in 1978. In 1989 he received FDA approval for the treatment of strabismus (the crossed-eye disorder) and abnormal eyelid spasms.
In 1998, David E.I. Pyott became CEO of Allergan. He was enthusiastic about Botox’s wrinkle-reducing potential, he says, and pushed the company to conduct a series of studies on the matter. In 2002, Botox earned FDA approval for so-called frown lines–wrinkles between eyebrows–marking the first time a pharmaceutical drug was given the green light for a strictly cosmetic purpose. In 2001, the year before Botox was approved for wrinkles. By 2013, the year it was approved for overactive bladder.
Botox works by temporarily immobilizing muscle activity. It does this by blocking nerve-muscle communication, which makes the injected muscles unable to contract. Paralyzing muscle activity is how Botox can steady a straying gaze, eliminate an eyelid spasm or stop signaling from nerves that stimulate sweat in a person’s armpit.
Botox has also been shown to prevent chronic migraines, but there, it’s unclear exactly why Botox works. (For doctors, reaching a firm understanding of how Botox prevents migraines will be tricky, since they don’t know for certain what causes the severe headaches in the first place.) “There were multiple clinical trials for migraines, and most of them failed,” says Dr. Mitchell Brin, senior vice president of drug development at Allergan and chief scientific officer for Botox. “It took a long time to figure out where to inject and how much.” Today people who receive Botox for migraine prevention get 31 injections in different spots on their head and neck. The effects of Botox can last about three to six months depending on the condition.
The use of Botox for migraines was, like many other new applications for the drug, a kind of happy accident. A Beverly Hills plastic surgeon observed that people who got Botox for wrinkles were reporting fewer headaches, paving the way for studies about migraines. Similarly, doctors in Europe were intrigued when they noticed that their patients who got Botox for facial spasms were sweating less than usual.
“It’s pure serendipity,” says Brin.
In the case of Botox, doctors who experiment off-label say they do so because they’re looking for better treatment options for their patients. “In my 30 years of medical practice, Botox is one of the most impactful treatments I had ever seen,” says Dr. Linda Brubaker, dean and chief diversity officer of the Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, who independently studied Botox for overactive bladder before the FDA approved it for that condition in 2013.
The studies using Botox for depression, like other research into Botox’s off-label potential, were so encouraging that they caught the attention of Allergan. In Rosenthal and Finzi’s research, 74 people with major depressive disorder were randomly assigned to receive Botox injections or a placebo. Six weeks later, 52% of the people who received Botox experienced a drop in reported symptoms, compared with 15% of the people given a placebo. “Over 50% of people responding is a high number,” says Finzi. “These are people who have already tried other treatments, and they are significantly depressed.”
Still, Botox’s use for depression raises a question that confounds some researchers. In some cases, how Botox works is evident: the toxin can block the signals between nerves and muscles, which is why it can help calm an overactive bladder, say, or a twitching eye, or the facial muscles that make wrinkles more apparent. In other cases, however (with migraines as well as with depression), scientists are flummoxed. They may have noticed that the drug works for a given condition, but they aren’t always sure why–in sciencespeak, they don’t know what the mechanism is.
With depression, Rosenthal and Finzi think it may relate to what’s known as the facial-feedback hypothesis, a theory stemming from research by Charles Darwin and further explored by the American philosopher and psychologist William James. The theory posits that people’s facial expressions can influence their mood. Lift your face into a smile and it may just cheer you up; if you can’t frown or furrow your brow in worry, perhaps you won’t feel so anxious or sad.
But it could be something else altogether. In 2008, Matteo Caleo, a researcher at the Italian National Research Council’s Institute of Neuroscience in Pisa, published a controversial study showing that when he injected the muscles of rats with Botox, he found evidence of the drug in the brain stem. He also injected Botox into one side of the brain in mice and found that it spread to the opposite side. That suggested the toxin could access the nervous system and the brain.
“We were very skeptical,” says Edwin Chapman, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, after reading Caleo’s study. But in August 2016, Chapman and his graduate student Ewa Bomba-Warczak published a study in the journal Cell Reports showing similar spreading effects in animal cells in the lab. For Chapman, it explained what he was hearing anecdotally from doctors: that Botox might be influencing the central nervous system and not just the area where it’s being injected.
Ironically, it’s the off-target effects of Botox that have some researchers most excited. “Botox may be working in a way that is different from what we think,” says Bomba-Warczak. “It may be even more complex.”
Chapman and Bomba-Warczak both think Botox is safe when used correctly, but they say their inboxes quickly filled with messages after their study was published. “We were startled by the number of people who feel they were harmed by these toxins,” says Chapman. “We feel these were pretty safe agents. Now it seems that for some people, they believe the toxin can sometimes cause something that may be irreversible.”
Allergan says Botox is well established as a drug and that the benefits and risks of toxins are well understood. “With more than 25 years of real-world clinical experience … approximately 3,200 articles in scientific and medical journals, marketing authorizations in more than 90 markets and many different indications, Botox and Botox Cosmetic are [among] the most widely researched medicines in the world,” an Allergan rep wrote in an emailed statement.
Norman Rosenthal, the Maryland psychiatrist who recommended Botox for his suicidal patient, says he’s seen the upside firsthand. The patient, persuaded by Rosenthal, did indeed get Botox shots on his forehead and between his brows. Days later, Rosenthal got an email from the patient. It was a thank-you note. Finally, the patient wrote, he was feeling better.