Saccade and cognitive function in chronic kava users

Sheree Cairney, P. Maruff, A. Collie, Bart Currie, Jon Currie

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debate


Kava is an extract from the Piper methysticum Forst. f plant that has been consumed in the Pacific islands for millennia and more recently, among indigenous populations, in northern Australia and throughout the Western world as an herbal medicine. Through alterations on neuronal excitation, kava induces muscle relaxation, anasthesia, and has anxiolytic properties. There have been several isolated reports of psychotic syndromes, severe choreoathetosis and possible seizures following kava use. However, there is no conclusive evidence that kava interferes with normal cognitive processes. We tested a group of current, ex, and nonkava users among an indigenous population in northern Australia, using saccade and cognitive tests that have proven cross-cultural validity and are sensitive to subtle disruptions of the brain arising from substance abuse or neuropsychiatric illness. Despite collecting data from among the heaviest reported kava drinkers in the world, we found no impairment in cognitive or saccade function in individuals who were currently heavy kava users (and had been for up to 18 years), nor was there any impairment in individuals who had been heavy kava users in the past but had abstained for longer than 6 months. Current and ex-kava users showed a higher rate of kava dermopathy, lower body mass index, lowered blood lymphocytes and, in addition, current kava users showed elevated liver enzymes. While there has recently been increasing concern about potentially fatal liver damage attributed to kava use, we have found no evidence of brain dysfunction in heavy and long-term kava users.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)389-396
Number of pages8
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2003


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