Possible models for multiple chemical sensitivity: Conceptual issues and role of the limbic system

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Conceivably, chemicals contacting olfactory nerve projections in the nose could either be transported into or relay electrical signals to the limbic region, leading to a vast array of symptoms. Likewise, thought processes and mood states may trigger or interrupt pre-existing limbic activity. At present, however, no evidence suggests that limbic activity triggered by environmental exposures can be entirely overcome by psychologic interventions. One important ramification of a limbic hypothesis, if true, is that no convenient biologic marker for multiple chemical sensitivity may exist at the present time. Ten years from now, we may finally confirm the existence of multiple chemical sensitivities (by careful, blinded challenges) but still have no single mechanism to explain it; that is, after all avenues of biochemical and immunologic inquiry have been exhausted, no single cause or marker for this disorder may be apparent. The theory that adaptation plays a role in MCS is based on the observed responses of patients in a deadapted state who have been housed in an environmental unit. Although adaptation is only an observation at this time, not a mechanism, biologic limits might regulate how much an organism can adapt. Such limits could be highly individual and vary by orders of magnitude. Certainly adaptation occurs at all levels of biologic systems, from enzyme systems to cells, tissues, organs, and even behavior (Fregly, 1969). Theoretically, a major insult or the accumulation of lower-level injuries within these systems could lead to a kind of 'overload' or 'saturation' effect with respect to adaptive capacity. This might cause an individual to have environmental responses, which, instead of being flexible and fluid, would become fragile and overly responsive. Many MCS patients report that years, and in some cases decades, after the onset of their problems, they have recovered only a portion of their former energies and tolerance for their environment. Their descriptions seem to suggest the loss of an intangible capacity to adapt, parts of which may be temporary and recoverable and other parts of which may not. Perhaps our patients have been telling us the diagnosis.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)21-42
Number of pages22
JournalInternational Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Toxicology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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