The deadly South American arrow poison

I’ve just found a fantastic article on the history of curare, the powerful Amazonian arrow poison that causes paralysis and death. It’s from a 2005 edition of the Journal of the Royal College of Physicians Edinburgh and is available online as a pdf.

The article tells the story of how the New World poison came to be known to the West, and how explorers, researchers and ‘gentleman scientists’ attempted to work out how it had its deadly effect.

Curare can be extracted from several plants but the active ingredient is d-tubocurarine.

It has its effect by blocking the effect of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine at the neuromuscular junction. In other words, it blocks the chemical signals that allow nerve signals to activate the muscle.

You may be interested to know that Botox works in an almost identical fashion. It is used in in very small doses in plastic surgery to supposedly ‘smooth’ wrinkles.

Actually, the main ‘smoothing’ effect is due to the fact that the underlying muscles are paralysed and so cannot move to cause creases in the skin.

In larger doses it is also very dangerous. The name is a clue – Botox is short for ‘botulinum toxin’.

The article on curare also has some fascinating asides about the myths associated with the compound, and some curious historical incidents associated with it – such as its role in a plot to assassinate the British Prime Minister during World War One.

pdf of article ‘Curare: the South American arrow poison’.

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