Historical and clinical aspects of pellagra and its relationship to alcoholism are reviewed from a biochemical perspective. Pellagra is caused by deficiency of niacin (nicotinic acid) and/or its tryptophan (Trp) precursor and is compounded by B vitamin deficiencies. Existence on maize or sorghum diets and loss of or failure to isolate niacin from them led to pellagra incidence in India, South Africa, Southern Europe in the 18th century and the USA following the civil war.
Pellagra is also induced by drugs inhibiting the conversion of Trp to niacin and by conditions of gastrointestinal dysfunction. Skin photosensitivity in pellagra may be due to decreased synthesis of the Trp metabolite picolinic acid → zinc deficiency → decreased skin levels of the histidine metabolite urocanic acid and possibly also increased levels of the haem precursor 5-aminolaevulinic acid (5-ALA) and photo-reactive porphyrins. Depression in pellagra may be due to a serotonin deficiency caused by decreased Trp availability to the brain. Anxiety and other neurological disturbances may be caused by 5-ALA and the Trp metabolite kynurenic acid.
Pellagra symptoms are resolved by niacin, but aggravated mainly by vitamin B6. Alcohol dependence can induce or aggravate pellagra by inducing malnutrition, gastrointestinal disturbances and B vitamin deficiencies, inhibiting the conversion of Trp to niacin and promoting the accumulation of 5-ALA and porphyrins. Alcoholic pellagra encephalopathy should be managed with niacin, other B vitamins and adequate protein nutrition. Future studies should explore the potential role of 5-ALA and also KA in the skin and neurological disturbances in pellagra.