Molecule of the Day

Atropine (Versatile Alkaloids)

Atropine can:

  • Dilate pupils
  • Speed the heart
  • Inhibit sweat and salivation
  • Serve as an “antidote” to “nerve gas”

Sounds like powerful medicine, and it is, indeed. On the other hand, it is named for Atropos, the Greek goddess responsible for deciding how people die, for a reason. This is a molecule best used by doctors, and only then with a surfeit of caution. Unfortunately, it seems to pop up everywhere!

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The somewhat disparate effects of the compound come from its ability to block a particular neurotransmitter receptor. It has a lot of medical uses, due to the above effects.

However, as mentioned earlier, atropine is abundant in nature – you find it in a lot of plants, explaining their poisonousness (or their traditional therapeutic use). The “belladonna,” or “beautiful woman,” eyedrops used in the Renaissance contained atropine. Historically, it was used as an anaesthetic. Because of atropine’s disparate effects and a narrow effective, nontoxic window, dosing it is a tough needle to thread. Those at risk from atropine poisoning include: Wiccans (it’s in mandrake), people after some sort of novel or easily available intoxicant to smoke (it’s in jimsonweed), and kids who are attracted to a plant by the pretty berries (it’s in nightshade).

Atropine is one of a very few truly ancient molecules that finds use in contemporary medicine.

Comments

  1. #1 Lab Lemming
    November 2, 2008

    Is that one of the chemicals used to treat funnelweb spider bites?

  2. #2 TexasSkeptic
    November 3, 2008

    I remember this stuff from grad school (reading about it, not trying it). Spikes the body temp, skin flushes, shuts down the salivary system, “smears” the visuals, randomizes the thinking process. Clinical presentation: “hot as a hare, red as a beet, dry as a bone, blind as a bat and mad as a hatter.” The Army’s “incapacitating agent” BZ (quinuclidinol benzilate) acted in the same way, IIRC.

    TexasSkeptic

  3. #3 DaleP
    November 4, 2008

    Plus, it was on CSI last week. Spoiler. The daughter of a drug lord was in Las Vegas. Bounced from a party, she went to a warehouse that was a drug distribution center and preparation of aquarium fish for clubs and offices. Somebody was using the atropine for fish to cut cocaine, she picked up the wrong bowl, and snorted it. Seizures followed. Death followed from an impromptu transfusion with mismatched blood. (Halloween episode, in an interesting reverse from a vampire plot)

  4. #4 adam
    November 20, 2008

    I recall that a friend of mine was given a plant to grow in a botany class when he was in college, and told to identify it. About halfway through the term, he went to his professor and said he thought it was deadly nightshade, although he couldn’t imagine that they’d just hand out such a deadly plant to undergrads. He was right about the identity, at the least. There was talk of use consuming some and then calling 911 to say “hi, we’ve done something *extremely* *dumb*,” but fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

  5. #5 Carolann
    November 29, 2008

    It was also used ON ME when I had a vaso-vagal attack on the operating table during an out-patient procedure. I was “sinking fast” and feeling just awful, so they gave me atropine and brought me back around. Frightened the helloutta me, though, because the only use I had known for it previously was to counteract nerve gas (they teach you that in Army Basic Training).