The Bedouin are wary of this plant but will smoke it with tobacco if they need to relieve the symptoms of asthma.
Clever grazing animals eat it early in the season but avoid it later.
For Sakaran is a toxic plant belonging to the Solanaceae, a family in which inoffensive food plants such as potatoes and tomatoes cohabit with toxic weeds such as Mandrake and Deadly Nightshade.
The toxins specifically target the autonomic nervous system. This has the servile role of regulating our essential bodily functions without troubling our more exalted conscious faculties. The specialised muscles of heart, eyes, blood vessels, bowels, bladder, uterus, and glands are all wired up for the spontaneous modulation of heart beat, breathing, salivation, eye pupil size, perspiration, urination, defecation and sexual arousal. Blushing is also a response of the system.
Fine control is achieved through the complementary action of two sets of nerves: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic triggers “Flight or Fight” responses to an adrenalin rush by stimulating heart rate and general alertness, while the parasympathetic, brings about a “Rest and Digest” response, slowing down the heart rate, promoting digestion, allowing bowel movements and reining in the action of the sympathetic system.
The Solanaceae toxins specifically target the parasympathetic side. They inhibit the firing of the nerves by blocking the action of acetylcholine, the only chemical messenger used by the parasympathetic system to transmit nerve signal across synapses, a small gap between nerve connections. The Solanaceae toxins bind to specific receptors in the synapses, preventing them from responding to the acetylcholine signal and the parasympathetic nerves consequently shuts down, unable to bring the heart back to normal after an adrenalin rush. All bowel movements, loosening of sphincters, secretion by glands and focusing of the eye muscles are inhibited.
The graphic effects of such inhibition can be seen after an overdose. The mouth, throat and nasal passage become so dry that any attempt at speaking results in animal like croaking and barks. Constipation follows with difficulty urinating, rapid beating of the heart, blurred vision, increased sensitivity to light, excitement and restlessness. Hallucinations and delirium may be induced and death can follow. Cleopatra is said to have considered it as a way of committing suicide and tested it on some of her slaves, only to be put off by the gruesome spectacle. The wives of the Roman Emperors, Augustine and Claudius, were less squeamish and dispatched several of their rivals in this manner.
In smaller doses, the toxins act as a general depressant on the Central Nervous System. This arises because acetylcholine is not only present in the autonomic system but is one of a cocktail of nerve transmitters active in the brain. By selectively blocking the action of acetylcholine, a shift in the balance of brain activity occurs. The effects are less specific than on the autonomic system but can result in euphoria followed by sleepiness and amnesia. The effect on memory has made the Solanaceae alkaloids the drugs of choice for cads intent on theft or seduction. Drinks are spiced to induce intoxication in the unwitting victims who then fail to recall the circumstance of their deception once they recover. The drugs have also been used since ancient time as a treatment for sleeplessness, and in combination with opium, found favour as a general anaesthetic up to the 19th century when they were finally replaced by chloroform and ether.
The extraction, purification and identification of the Solanaceae toxins have allowed modern medicine a more nuanced application of their properties.
Scopolamine was first isolated from the Hyoscyamus species (Henbane) of which Sakaran is one example. When released slowly from a transdermal patch at the miniscule rate of 330 micrograms a day, it reduces the nausea associated with motion sickness or post-operative recovery. When diluted in eye drops, it causes dilation of the pupils and paralysis of the focusing muscles, facilitating optical surgery.
Atropine was first isolated from Atropa belladonna, Deadly Nightshade. It is used as an antidote to nerve poisons like sarin, once used in an attack on the Tokyo underground by members of a demented religious sect. The poison specifically blocks the action of cholinesterase, an enzyme which normally breaks down acetylcholine to prevent it from accumulating and wreaking havoc on the body’s normal processes. And that is exactly what happens when the enzyme is blocked by the poison. The parasympathetic nervous system is forced into overdrive, causing runny nose, drooling, difficulty breathing, constricted pupils, vomiting, diarrhoea and involuntary urination. The victim eventually dies of convulsive spasms. Atropine blocks the acetylcholine receptors in the heart, soft muscle and glands, thus reducing the physiological symptoms of over stimulation but has no effect on the skeletal muscles which have a different class of receptors for acetylcholine. Another drug, pralidoxime, is therefore needed to inhibit the fatal spasms.
Hyoscyamine was first isolated from mandrake and henbane and has a similar effect to scopolamine.