An olfactory-limbic model of multiple chemical sensitivity syndrome: Possible relationships to kindling and affective spectrum disorders

Iris R. Bell, Claudia S. Miller, Gary E. Schwartz

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243 Scopus citations


This paper reviews the clinical and experimental literature on patients with multiple adverse responses to chemicals (Multiple Chemical Sensitivity Syndrome-MCS) and develops a model for MCS based on olfactory-limbic system dysfunction that overlaps in part with Post's kindling model for affective disorders. MCS encompasses a broad range of chronic polysymptomatic conditions and complaints whose triggers are reported to include low levels of common indoor and outdoor environmental chemicals, such as pesticides and solvents. Other investigators have found evidence of increased prevalence of depression, anxiety, and somatization disorders in MCS patients and have concluded that their psychiatric conditions account for the clinical picture. However, none of these studies has presented any data on the effects of chemicals on symptoms or on objective measures of nervous system function. Synthesis of the MCS literature with large bodies of research in neurotoxicology, occupational medicine, and biological psychiatry, suggests that the phenomenology of MCS patients overlaps that of affective spectrum disorders and that both involve dysfunction of the limbic pathways. Animal studies demonstrate that intermittent repeated low level environmental chemical exposures, including pesticides, cause limbic kindling. Kindling (full or partial) is one central nervous system mechanism that could amplify reactivity to low levels of inhaled and ingested chemical and initiate persistent affective, cognitive, and somatic symptomatology in both occupational and nonoccupational settings. As in animal studies, inescapable and novel stressors could cross-sensitive with chemical exposures in some individuals to generate adverse responses on a neurochemical basis. The olfactory-limbic model raises testable neurobiological hypotheses that could increase understanding of the multifactorial etiology of MCS and of certain overlapping affective spectrum disorders.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)218-242
Number of pages25
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number3
StatePublished - Aug 1 1992

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biological Psychiatry


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