Friar Laurence, the hapless herbalist that provided Romeo and Juliet with a fateful sleep potion, had a soliloquy about the properties of plants that turn them from life-saving remedies into deadly poisons, depending on the dosage and application.
...Nought so vile that on the earth doth live
But to the earth some special good doth give,
Nor aught so good but strain'd from that fair use
Revolts from true birth, stumbling on abuse:
Virtue itself turns vice, being misapplied;
And vice sometimes by action dignified.
Within the infant rind of this small flower
Poison hath residence and medicine power:
For this, being smelt, with that part cheers each part;
Being tasted, slays all senses with the heart.
If these words apply to any modern substance, it would be Botox. This ubiquitous cosmetic has become so firmly enmeshed in our culture, touted by celebrities, extolled on television shows, offered by plastic surgeons and beauty clinics nationwide. So popular is the treatment, that it's easy to forget its origin.
Botox is the medical trademark for treatments that use a form of botulinum toxin. First isolated from meat products colonized by a certain species of bacteria, the toxin exists in four variants: A, C1, D and E. It's not merely harmful to humans – it is, in fact, the most toxic protein known to mankind, with a minuscule 32 nanograms (32 billionths of a gram) of the C1 variant, and 40-55 nanograms of the A variant, being enough to cause death in a human.
The way the toxin acts is unusual compared to other neurotoxins. Unlike many of those substances, which bind to the surface of nerve cells and inhibit their communication externally, botulinum invades the cell itself and attacks SNAP-25, a protein that regulates the release of neurotransmitters such as Acetylcholine from inside the cell in response to stimuli. This is why, while many neurotoxins are very quick to act, having an effect within minutes, botulinum can take a long time to have a perceptible effect, up to 3-4 days.
So why is this dangerous stuff so popular? As per Friar Laurence, things which are deadly when used in some ways can be life-savers when used differently. In the 1950s, researchers found that in sufficiently weak concentrations, type A botulinum could be injected locally to deaden select nerves.
The cosmetic applications of this property are to reduce wrinkles by blocking or weakening nerve signals that cause facial muscles to contract and contribute to the appearance of wrinkles. This is far from the only application of the substance – Botox is approved by the FDA and widely used in cases of nerve-related disorders such as uncontrollable spasms, neuropathies and even migraines.
When done properly, injections of Botox, both for cosmetic and medical purposes, are safe and can be repeated as needed every 60-70 days. However, there is a number of side effects that Botox can cause, ranging from mildly annoying to potentially serious. When going in for treatments at a spa or plastic surgery clinic, it's important to do research on the track record of the establishment.
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