Atropa belladonna provides many benefits to humans. The main chemical components of the plant include scopolamine (hyoscine) and atropine. In large quantities, these can be harmful (and even lethal) to humans. However, in small, controlled amounts, these compounds can have very beneficial applications. The chemicals from Atropa belladonna can be used to treat extreme inflammation, preventing sepsis, and have strong effects on the nervous system. They are also used in many homeopathic treatments of infections (Cross 2012).
L-atropine was isolated from A. belladonna in the 1830’s, and this discovery allowed scientists to study and understand the effects of neurotransmitters, especially acetylcholine, on humans and other mammals (Lee 2007). Atropine is an anticholinergic, meaning that it blocks the action of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine on the nervous system (Cross 2012). For this reason, it can be administered as an antidote for poisoning by organophosphates or nerve gases because it outcompetes (antagonizes) these chemicals for access to the neuroreceptors. It was used during the 1970’s to reverse the effects of exposure to the cholinergic agonist, physostigmine, in military personnel (Greenblatt & Shader 1973). Related to its effects on the central nervous system, atropine can help in stopping muscle spasms and allowing the return of normal heart rate after exposure to toxins such as nerve gas (Cross 2012). Atropine can also be used to lower blood pressure and lessen the effects of hypertension (Abraham et al. 1981).
Studies with mice have shown that atropine has immunoprotective and gastroprotective effects when behavior alterations occur due to increased levels of stress (Cromwell 1943). Studies using rabbits have shown that atropine can also be used to dilate the pupils. In humans, this practice is more risky, as reversal of the process could take up to 10 days, and excessive use could lead to blindness (Salazar et al. 1976). Nonetheless, the compound has been used in optometry in order to dilate pupils during cataract surgeries and also (though ill-advisedly) to dilate the pupils in order to increase cosmetic appeal. Currently, atropine sulfate drops are a popularly prescribed treatment for amblyopia (an eye condition commonly known as “lazy eye”) (Cross 2012).
Hyoscine has been found to be much safer to use than atropine. It has anesthetic effects and has been used to calm mental patients. It has more recently been discovered to be potentially useful in treating major depressive or anxiety disorders in humans and in regulating mood and behavior. Clinical trials with humans are now underway (Drevets & Furey 2010). Hyoscine is also used in anti-vertigo drugs and other drugs that aid in the prevention of motion sickness (Pyykkö et al. 1985).
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