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Classification & external resources
Thanks to the grasspea, an aquatint print by Goya showing the use of grasspea as a famine food but also highlighting its effects (crippled woman lying on the floor)
ICD-10 T62.2
ICD-9 988.2
DiseasesDB 32679
MeSH D007842

Lathyrism or Neurolathyrism is a neurological disease of humans and domestic animals, caused by eating certain legumes of the genus Lathyrus. This problem is mainly associated with Lathyrus sativus (also known as Grass pea, Khesari Dhal or Almorta) and to a lesser degree with Lathyrus cicera, Lathyrus ochrus and Lathyrus clymenum[1]. The lathyrism resulting from the ingestion of Lathyrus odoratus seeds (Sweet peas) is often referred to as odoratism, which is caused by a different toxin (Beta-amino-propionitrile) and affects the linking of collagen, a protein of connective tissues.



The consumption of large quantities of Lathyrus grain containing high concentrates of the neurotoxin beta-oxalyl-L-alpha,beta-diaminopropionic acid (or ODAP) causes paralysis, characterized by lack of strength in or inability to move the lower limbs. The poison responsible in the peas is the glutamate analogue beta-(N)-oxalylamino-L-alanine acid (BOAA), also known as beta-N-oxalyl-diamino-propionic acid (beta-ODAP).


This disease is prevalent in some areas of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India and Nepal,[2] and affects more men than women. The reason for this is unclear, female hormones have been suggested to offer a measure of protection, but also less food allocation and less oxidatively stressful activity [work] are plausible.


    The toxicological cause of the disease has been attributed to the neurotoxin beta-oxalyl-L-alpha,beta-diaminopropionic acid (ODAP) which acts as a structural analogue of the neurotransmitter glutamate. Ingestion of legumes containing the toxin results mostly from ignorance of their toxicity and usually occurs where the despair of poverty and malnutrition leaves little other food options.


Recent research suggests that sulfur amino acids have a protective effect against the toxicity of ODAP.[3]

Food preparation is also an important factor. Toxic amino acids are readily soluble in water and can be leached. Bacterial (lactic acid) and fungal (tempeh) fermentation is useful to reduce ODAP content. Moist heat (boiling, steaming) denatures proteinase inhibitors which otherwise add to the toxic effect of raw grasspea through depletion of protective sulfur amino acids.

The underlying cause for excessive consumption of grasspea is a lack of alternative food sources. This is a consequence of poverty and political conflict. The prevention of lathyrism is therefore a socio-economic challenge.

Historical occurrence

The first mentioned intoxication goes back to ancient India and also Hippocrates mentiones a neurological disorder 46 B.C. in Greece caused by Lathyrus seed.[4] Lathyrism was occurring in regular basis.

During the Spain War of Independence against Napoleon, grasspea served as a famine food. This was the subject of one of Francisco de Goya's famous aquatint prints titled Gracias a la Almorta ("Thanks to the Grasspea"), depicting poor people surviving on a porridge made from grasspea flour, one of them lying on the floor, already crippled by it.

In the film 'Ashes' [English title] by Andrzej Wajda based on the novel Popioly [Polish title] translated as 'Lost army' [English title] by Stefan Zeromski spanning the period 1798-1812, a horse is poisoned by grain from a Spanish village. The footage of the horse losing control of its hindlegs suggests that it was fed with Almortas. The scene with the horse falling down a steep cliff is very graphic.

Modern occurrence

During the post-war period in Spain, there were several outbreaks of lathyrism, caused by the shortage of food, which led people to consume excessive amounts of Almorta flour.[5]

In Spain, a seed mixture known as comuña[6] consisting of Lathyrus sativus, L. cicera, Vicia sativa and V. ervilia provides a potent mixture of toxic amino acids to poison monogastric (single stomached) animals. Particularly the toxin beta-cyanoalanine from seeds of V. sativa enhances the toxicity of such a mixture through its inhibition of sulfur amino acid metabolism [conversion of methionine to cysteine leading to excretion of cystathionine in urine] and hence depletion of protective reduced thiols. Its use for sheep does not pose any lathyrism problems if doses do not exceed 50 percent of the ration.[7]

Related conditions

A related disease has been identified and named Osteolathyrism, caused by the toxin beta-amino-propionitrile (BAPN) because it affects the bones and connecting tissues, instead the nervous system. It is a skeletal disorder characterized by hernias, dissecting aortic aneurysms, lameness of the hind legs, exostoses, and kyphoscoliosis and other skeletal deformities, apparently as the result of defective aging of collagen tissue. The cause of this disease is attributed to beta-aminopropionitrile (BAPN), which inhibits the copper-containing enzyme lysyl oxidase, responsible for cross-linking procollagen and proelastin. BAPN is also a metabolic product of a compound present in sprouts of grasspea, pea and lentils.[8]


  1. ^ "Medical problems caused by plants: Lathyrism" at Prince Leopold Institute of Tropical Medicine online database
  2. ^ Spencer P. S., Ludolph A. C., Kisby G. E. (July 1993). "Neurologic diseases associated with use of plant components with toxic potential". Environmental Research 62 (1): 106-113. ISSN 0013-9351 PubMed.
  3. ^ Sriram, K.; Shankar,S.K.; Boyd,M.R.; Ravindranath, V. (1998)Thiol Oxidation and Loss of Mitochondrial Complex I Precede Excitatory Amino Acid-Mediated Neurodegeneration. The Journal of Neuroscience, 18(24):10287–10296
  4. ^ Mark V. Barrow; Charles F. Simpson; Edward J. Miller (1974). "Lathyrism: A Review". The Quarterly Review of Biology 49 (2): 101-128.
  5. ^ AZCOYTIA, Carlos (2006): "Historia de la Almorta or el veneno que llegó con el hambre tras la Guerra Civil Española". HistoriaCocina
  6. ^ The etymological origin of this name is from "común" (common) in its meaning of mixture, referring to the mix of seeds obtained when cleaning the grain and which contaminate the main grain, generally wheat.
  7. ^ J.E. Hernández Bermejo; J. León (1994). Neglected crops 1492 from a different perspective. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. ISBN 92-5-103217-3. 
  8. ^ COHN, D.F. (1995) "Are other systems apart from the nervous system involved in human lathyrism?" in Lathyrus sativus and Human Lathyrism: Progress and Prospects. Ed. Yusuf H, Lambein F. University of Dhaka. Dhaka pp. 101-2.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Lathyrism". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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