Museum Blog

Belladonna: Femme Fatale of the Plant World

Posted 6/22/2015 12:06 AM by Richard Busch | Comments

Belladonna (Atropa belladonna), otherwise known as deadly night shade, has been used for centuries as a medicine, an aphrodisiac, and perhaps more sinisterly a poison. Italian in origin, belladonna’s name literally translates to “beautiful woman” as the plant’s juice was used for centuries by Greco-Roman women to dilate their pupils in attempts to look more adoring of their suitors. This is actually scientifically backed. In 1965 Eckhardt Hess tested this by asking men to rate pictures of women by their attractiveness. These pictures included women with normally occurring pupils and pictures of women whose pupils were slightly enlarged. Consistently, the women with larger pupils were rated as more attractive. Although I am sure that the belladonna tincture worked to some degree, doctors now shy from using belladonna in or near the eyes as it distorts vision, damage the surface of the eye, and can even cause blindness when used in excess.

Belladonna -rbusch

The plant, native to Eurasia, northern Africa, and parts of Canada and the US, contains both scopolamine and hyoscyamine which are both anticholinergic agents that block the neurotransmitter acetylcholine from binding to its receptor in nerve cells. *Cue exhale. What exactly does that mean? It means that involuntary movement in the body (i.e. breathing, digestion, heart beats, salivation, and sweating) is all under-ridden with information. Consequently ingesting belladonna can lead to dizziness, confusion, digestive blockages, dry mouth, high blood pressure, convulsions, coma, and even death. Frankly, this sounds to me like a fairly horrifying way to die. Remember how your scouts’ leader used to tell you not to eat plants unless you were 100% certain what they were? Belladonna is a great case and point. In 2009 a Canadian woman was hospitalized for eating 6 berries that she assumed were Caucasian blueberries. Both plants have small, sweet blue berries, but only one of them belongs in a green smoothie.

This isn’t to say that scopolamine doesn’t have its place in the medical world, however. It is often used topically to relieve joint pain, and in the form of a patch for nausea derived from motion-sickness. Recently, doctors at the National Institute of Mental Health have been also been testing the compound’s practical use in bipolar disorder by accessing its ability to block acetylcholine. In the 1970s, medical professionals recognized that patients experiencing depressive episodes had extremely high levels of acetylcholine present in their brains. Maura Furey of the aforementioned National Institute of Mental Health tested scopolamine in a case study of 22 patients in 2012 and recognized that there were positive results within 3 days! While still in phases of testing, the once sinister compound may eventually prove to be something entirely useful and even life-saving! Remarkable, no?


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