In the event that you missed previous Dead Man's Hand entries and wish to catch up:
Part One – Part Two – !WARNING! – Part Three – When Plants Attack! - The Alkaloidally Steeped Spooktacular!
(Note: I may re-write the contents of this entry again, later, should I feel my understanding change, or that I have more/better information.)
Before we torch the ranch...
Some time ago, I caught a link to a Daily Mail article about how Scopolamine was “The Most Dangerous Drug in the World!” (It really isn't.) It had been punted onto G+ by Sorita D'este, and I took immediate interest in the article. I recognized the alkaloid, but reading the article made me want to know more about the history of it.
Why, you might ask? Because there are several secondary metabolites/tropane alkaloids in Mandragora Officinarum, but let's focus on two* for the purposes of this entry:
Returning, briefly, to the past.
Dioscorides describes Mandrake as an Anaesthetic, amongst other things. This knowledge of the plant and it's ability to create a soporific affect extended into Medieval medicine, where it was used in the Spongia Somnifera or Soporific Sponge.** The sponge was one of the best tools of the trade in the hands of a Medieval surgeon. In “The Solanaceae II: The mandrake (Mandragora officinarum); in league with the Devil” by M.R. Lee of the University of Edinbrough, the exact contents of the sponge are discussed:
“Hugo de Lucca was the chief of a school of surgeons in Tuscany in the fifteenth century. In 1490, he devised this sponge, soaked in a mixture of herbs, which could be used as an inhalational anaesthetic. The preparation contained an infusion of the following plants: opium, mulberry, henbane, hemlock, mandrake and the seeds of lettuce, dock and water hemlock. In other words, at the very least it contained morphine, hyoscine, and the alkaloids of mandrake. Not surprisingly, sleep could last for up to four hours (or even longer). This narcotic sponge was used over several centuries with good effect...However, the soporific sponge could prove unpredictable in its effects. Sometimes it did not work well at all and had to be supplemented by alcoholic spirits such as brandy (or whiskey) and sometimes it worked too well and the patient never regained consciousness. Many surgeons, in the period 1750 to 1840, relied on physical restraint of the patient and lightning fast technique and the poppy was the only drug used for post-operative pain.”
The problems with Mandrake, the need for restraints, and such were eventually solved by the discovery of Chloroform, which replaced the Soporific sponge for a time. At the turn of the century, one of the Mandrake's more potent alkaloids (Scopolamine) was put to a very similar use (again with opiates involved) for “Twilight Sleep,” which was approached as an alternative to using Chloroform on women as an anaesthetic during childbirth. It was initially believed to be without peer, but complications were discovered to have arisen involving the respiratory system of children born to women put under with Twilight Sleep injections.***
With a brief look at a few uses in past medical history, let's take a look at the Tropanes themselves.
Like many of the other Tropanes, Atropine passes the blood-brain barrier (but not as well as Scopolamine) and begins affecting the CNS within 30 minutes. It then binds to the Acetylcholine receptors, upon which it acts as a competitive antagonist. It thereby suppresses the Central Nervous System****, and in toxic doses will lead to death. It has a half-life of two hours, generally speaking.
It is psychoactive and may produce hallucinations in some individuals. Dr. Duke's database gives the following information on its many uses and functions (I've only selected a few):
Antidote (Anticholinesterase), (Black Widow), (Lobelia), (Muscarine), (Mushroom), (Organophosphorus), (Poison Gas), (Tetrodotoxin)
And the list really goes on and on and on. It's uses in medicine appear to presently be myriad, but like Scopolamine it was one of the first treatments used for Parkinson's disease. It appears other Antimuscerinic drugs have largely replaced both, however. Atropine is found within Atropa Belladonna (Root), Jimson Weed, Mandragora Officinarum (Root), Hyoscyamus Niger (Root, Leaf), and too many of the Daturas to list. It is very, very deadly and not to be underestimated.
(As an aside, I wish I had a nifty image demonstration where Scopolamine is affecting, like Atropine.)
Like Atropine, Scopolamine locks into the Acetylcholine receptors, acting as a competative antagonist. While other alkaloids in Mandrake can cause emetic effects, Scopolamine is actually an anti-emetic. This means that if a given plant has too much Scopolamine, the emetic effects of Mandrake will not save your life and you will still totally die. Scopolamine passes the blood-brain barrier better than Atropine, making its effects felt at somewhat smaller doses. This also increases the likelihood of overdose, and death due to CNS Depression. Dr. Duke's database lists the following functions (again, selectively taken):
Amnesigenic (Hence some of the horror stories attached to the alkaloid when it has been abused)
Antidote (Anticholinesterase), (Tetrodotoxin)
Along with Atropine, Scopolamine was used in treatments for Parkinson's disease because of the way it acts on the Muscarinic systems. In 2006, the first wave of trials on Scopolamine conducted by the National Institute of mental health concluded that Scopolamine might work very well as fast-acting anti-depressant, and that it might be able to treat patients suffering from bipolar disorder as well. Subsequent re-trials have shown positive results. (Ask your Psychiatrist if toxic witch drugs are right for you!)
Scopolamine is found in Mandragora Officinarum (root), a whole slew of Daturas (notably the Brugmansias), Atropa Belladonna (root), the Hyoscamus Niger (seeds) and quite a few others.
* I was going to discuss Hyoscyamine, but in reflection, I don't know nearly enough about it. Maybe someday.
*** There were other issues, such as the need to restrain certain female patients (possibly due to the effects of Scopolamine, or the combination of Morphine and the Tropane). All told, Twilight Sleep really wasn't that great.
**** Both of these tropanes are listed as potentially both depressing or stimulating the CNS. It could be that they act similar to nicotine, stimulating the CNS in small doses and depressing it in higher doses.