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What is Atropine?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Atropine is a toxic alkaloid present in belladonna and some other members of the nightshade family. This bitter crystalline compound has a number of medical uses when employed in a controlled environment, and people have also used it recreationally, although this practice is not advised. Pharmaceutical-grade atropine is produced in very controlled environments to ensure that the dosage is precise and safe.

This drug depresses the action of the vagus nerve, a nerve which controls a number of functions in the torso, including heart rate. It also interferes with the action of acetylcholine, causing the muscles of the body to relax. Atropine typically dilates the pupils and elevates the heart rate. It can also cause dizziness, nausea, and a variety of neurological symptoms, because it crosses the blood-brain barrier. In severe overdoses, atropine can lead to death.

The uses of atropine take advantage of its effects on the body, turning them to good use. For example, it may be administered to dilate the pupils, or as an antispasmodic drug, since it forces the muscles to relax. Because it reduces secretions in the respiratory tract, atropine is also used in anesthesiology to bring these secretions down, ensuring that the patient does not experience a buildup of fluid on the lungs. Atropine can also be used to treat organophosphate poisoning, and to stimulate the heart in people with a slowed heart rate.

Because atropine can be very dangerous, it needs to be used in controlled circumstances. Doctors must calculate and measure the dosage carefully to ensure that the atropine is utilized appropriately, and access to this drug is restricted in many regions, due to concerns about the potential for abuse. People who use atropine recreationally generally do so in an attempt to experience the neurological symptoms, and they may do so by consuming members of the nightshade family, which may be the last thing they do, since the dosage of atropine in a single plant is impossible to calculate.

The name of this chemical references Atropos, one of the Fates in Greek mythology. According to legend, Atropos decided how people were going to die. People have long been aware of the dangers of eating members of the nightshade family because of the atropine, which is why potatoes and tomatoes were viewed with such deep suspicion when they were introduced to Europe, since these plants belong to this family. Eggplants, peppers, and tobacco are also in the nightshade family, demonstrating the diversity found among the Solanaceae, as members of this family are formally known.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By ZipLine — On Sep 17, 2012

My brother is a medic and he usually tells me about any incidents that happened at work when he comes home.

Once he told me that they picked up someone who was suffering from a really high heart rate. The other medic that my brother was working with almost accidentally gave the patient atropine instead of another drug that was supposed to help slow down his heart rate.

My brother noticed it and warned him at the last minute. He was telling me how that patient would have died, had the other medic given the atropine. This is definitely a drug that needs to be feared and used very, very cautiously.

By fify — On Sep 16, 2012

Do the other plants in the nightshade family cause side effects like the medication atropine?

Have there been any studies done to see if peppers or tomatoes increase heart rate?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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