WEDNESDAY, Aug. 5, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- New French research suggests the main ingredient used in many insect repellants may affect the central nervous system, at least in mice.
And combining this ingredient -- DEET (N,N-Diethyl-3-methylbenzamide) -- with carbamates, a type of pesticide that is often used with DEET, compounded the effects.
Although the authors, publishing online Aug. 5 in BMC Biology, warn of potential dangers to humans, they also acknowledge the need for more studies on the subject.
Meanwhile, people should probably worry more about the health risks from mosquitoes and other insects than about the potential harms of DEET, experts said.
"This work was done primarily in test tubes in order to try to understand some of the mechanisms," said Dr. Ted Schettler, science director of the Science & Environmental Health Network. "The mechanistic information is very useful but the jury is still out on what implications this has for humans."
"DEET has been used for a very long time with very few bad outcomes," added Susan Paskewitz, a professor of entomology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "People have killed themselves by drinking it, but you can do that with alcohol or salt. And a few have had neurological symptoms after application for long periods and high doses."
As for the combination of DEET and carbamates, Paskewitz added, "if there are the kinds of synergies suggested by the study, they aren't happening very often. I also would guess that the actual concentration in the body is much lower than they had to use in the study to see an effect in the mouse tissues."
But by better understanding the mechanisms by which DEET works, scientists may be able to come up with better repellant products, said Paul Sanberg, distinguished professor of neurosurgery and director of the University of South Florida Center for Aging and Brain Repair in Tampa.
DEET is the most common active ingredient in insect repellents and is used worldwide by about 200 million people annually. However, relatively little is known about how the compound actually works.
From this study, it now appears that not only does DEET change the behavior of insects, it also inhibits the acetylcholinesterase enzyme, which is involved in the central nervous system, in both insects and mice.
Organophosphates and carbamate insecticides employ the same mechanism of action and, when combined with DEET in these experiments, increased the toxicity of the chemicals.
"This study demonstrates the vital importance of looking at chemicals in combination," Schettler said. "This shows that when you combine chemicals, you can get unpredictable results."
The authors, from different research institutions in France, say this is the first time a molecular target for DEET has been identified.
Interestingly, the class of drugs known as cholinesterase inhibitors are used to treat Alzheimer's and can delay the decline of symptoms for up to a year.
Sanberg said the effects of DEET, like many chemicals and drugs, can simply depend on the individual using it.
An earlier study found a strong association between exposure to acetylcholinesterase inhibitors and the Gulf War illness suffered by many veterans. Organophosphates have also been linked with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of leukemia in children.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has more on DEET.