Scopolamine is an alkaloid drug present in a number of plant species from the nightshade family, including Datura, Henbane, Angel’s trumpets, and Belladonna. Its classification is that of a deliriant, a class of psychoactive drugs that block acetylcholine from binding to receptors in the central and peripheral nervous system.
At low doses, scopolamine has important medicinal effects, helping to alleviate motion sickness and prevent postoperative nausea and vomiting. In addition, at higher doses it has historically been used as a hallucinogen, although the effects are generally unpleasant and potentially dangerous. Also, criminals have exploited its deliriant properties, and several countries have investigated it as a potential “truth serum.”
What is Scopolamine?
Scopolamine is a psychoactive alkaloid occurring in several members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family of plants. The name “scopolamine” originates from a genus in this family known as Scopolia. Scopolamine is also known as hyoscine, a name derived from Hyoscyamus niger, a poisonous nightshade species commonly known as Henbane.
Similar to other secondary metabolites that the nightshade family produces, scopolamine is a tropane alkaloid. That is, it is a nitrogen-containing bicyclic compound. The nitrogen in scopolamine’s chemical structure is bound to three other carbons, which makes it a tertiary amine similar to cocaine and atropine. As a result of this structure, scopolamine can readily cross the blood-brain barrier and exert psychoactive effects.
Scopolamine is an anticholinergic drug, meaning it antagonizes (blocks the action of) the endogenous neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Acetylcholine plays a wide variety of regulatory roles within the brain and body. These include activating muscle contraction; mediating learning, memory, and attention; and regulating involuntary processes in the autonomic nervous system (ANS).
Specifically, scopolamine prevents acetylcholine from binding to muscarinic receptors. Muscarinic receptors are one of the two families of acetylcholine receptors (the other being nicotinic receptors, which nicotine activates). They get their name from muscarine, a toxic alkaloid found in Amanita muscaria mushrooms that agonizes these receptors. They are abundant in the body, including in the brain and various organs innervated by the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS is a branch of the ANS that is responsible for processes such as digestion, salivation, lacrimation (tears), urination, defecation, and sexual arousal.
At low doses, scopolamine mainly acts on the PNS, which explains its medicinal potential for alleviating nausea, vomiting, motion sickness, and for decreasing saliva production prior to surgery. However, at higher doses scopolamine has more pronounced central nervous system effects with potent deliriant properties. Deliriants are a subset of hallucinogens that produce widely different effects from the classic serotonergic psychedelics. The effects of their use are sometimes likened to sleepwalking. They can produce vivid hallucinations, amnesia, confusion, and an inability to control one’s actions.
- Devil’s Breath
Common Ways to Use Scopolamine
Medically, scopolamine is used transdermally, orally, intravenously, and as an ophthalmic solution. After ingestion, the liver metabolizes the drug and the kidneys excrete it, with an elimination half-life of approximately eight hours.
Transdermal patches (brand name: Transderm-Scop) are the most common way to use scopolamine. The patch slowly releases approximately 1 mg of scopolamine into the skin over a period of 3 days. Transdermal scopolamine is used to prevent the nausea and vomiting of motion sickness or anesthesia given during surgery. A patch placed behind the ear allows the body to best absorb it. Transdermal patches are prescription-only, and commonly given to pilots, astronauts, scuba divers, and sailors.
Oral scopolamine (brand name Scopace) can treat motion sickness, urinary problems, intestinal problems, muscle spasms, and symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Typically, oral scopolamine prescription dosage comes in 0.4 mg tablets of hyoscine hydrobromide. Compared to transdermal patches, the oral route is rarely used because of its low bioavailability, dose-dependent side effects, and short plasma half-life. Recreationally, scopolamine can be given in oral form, but rarely many times. Again, ts psychoactive effects are often unpleasant and potentially dangerous.
Intravenous scopolamine can be used clinically for obstetric amnesia, preoperative amnesia, postoperative nausea and vomiting, and sedation. Typical doses are from 0.32–0.65 mg. In addition, intravenous scopolamine administration is common for research purposes in human and rodent studies to investigate memory encoding.
Scopolamine (brand name Isopto Hyoscine) is sometimes used in the form of eye drops to dilate the pupils prior to eye examinations, eye surgery, and to treat certain eye conditions. Scopolamine will dilate the pupil by paralyzing the muscles of the iris.
History & Traditional Uses
Since ancient times, scopolamine has been used in the form of plant-based preparations as a medicine and ritual intoxicant. Brugmansia, commonly known as Angel’s trumpets, is a scopolamine-containing nightshade species native to the tropics of South America. It is a traditional entheogen of Andean shamans in northern Peru. The indigenous peoples thought the plant contained spiritual powers and they used it for initiation rituals, divination, and black magic.
The Aztecs were familiar with several scopolamine-containing plants, including Datura stramonium and Datura innoxia, which they called Tlapatl and Mixitl, respectively. These plants have medicinal purposes, either as an anesthetic or as a healing rub to cure gout. As an entheogen, the Aztecs used the plants for divination and religious initiation rites. Sometimes, they’d use the plants for malevolent reasons, such as human sacrificial rituals.
In the Middle Ages, scopolamine was the main psychoactive alkaloid in flying ointments, a fat-based hallucinogenic preparation of European witchcraft. Witches would apply the ointment all over their bodies to achieve altered states of consciousness and out-of-body experiences. Flying ointments came from several nightshade species, including Henbane and Datura.
Modern Discovery and Medicinal Uses
In 1880, the German chemist Albert Ladenburg first isolated scopolamine. A few decades later, scopolamine found occasional use alongside morphine for surgical anesthesia.
In 1903, a German doctor named Carl Gauss started using a morphine and scopolamine concoction in obstetrics. The treatment acquired the name of Dämmerschlaf, or “twilight sleep.” It exploited scopolamine’s amnesic properties to eliminate the trauma, pain, and memory of childbirth. But after the 1960s, several complications led to its eventual downfall. The deliriant and depressant aspects removed the emotional aspect of childbirth but posed dangerous complications to the mother and newly-delivered child.
By 1947, scopolamine was used for motion sickness and for postoperative nausea and vomiting. In the late 1970s, the FDA approved it for these conditions. Owing to its medicinal success, the World Health Organization identified it as an “essential medicine.”
Today, its continuing off-label use for a variety of conditions includes:
- Gastrointestinal spasms
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Chemotherapy nausea
- Parkinson’s disease
- Smoking cessation therapy
- Excessive sweating
More recently, human clinical trials have evaluated scopolamine as a rapid-acting antidepressant for individuals with bipolar disorder and major depressive disorder. Although the treatment was found to produce temporary side effects, depression relief was seen as soon as three days after treatment.
Governmental and Criminal Use
In light of scopolamine’s use in obstetrics as a deliriant, an American obstetrician named Robert House began to experiment with scopolamine as an interrogation drug, or “truth serum.” In 1922, Dr. House administered scopolamine to two inmates in the Dallas County Jail. Dr. House found that the original stories of the inmates did not change while they were under the influence of the drug, eventually leading to the acquittal of both men.
Eventually, scopolamine found its way into the interrogation rooms of Nazis, the CIA, and various secret police forces. The CIA experimented with scopolamine as a truth serum in the Cold War of the 1960s, and the Czech government has employed it as recently as 2009. As a result of its side effects, the use of scopolamine as a truth serum has largely been abandoned.
Opportunistic robbers, kidnappers, and sexual criminals in Colombia have used powdered scopolamine (commonly called “Devil’s Breath”). Between 1998 and 2004, 13% of emergency room admissions were due to scopolamine poisoning in a Bogotá clinic. According to one source, nearly 50,000 criminal assaults in Columbia every year involve scopolamine poisoning.
Allegedly, the drug is slipped into people’s drinks, especially at bars and night clubs, leading to a sort of “chemical hypnosis” where the victim loses a sense of free will and any memory of subsequent events. In 2012, Vice produced a short documentary called World’s Scariest Drug. They investigated the phenomenon, including interviews with scopolamine victims. Several of the victims stated that they willingly emptied their bank accounts and gave away their most valuable possessions without any recollection of the events.
Commonly Reported Effects of Scopolamine
Depending on the route of administration, scopolamine’s onset of action may range from 20 minutes to 2 hours. The main effects last anywhere from 3 to 24 hours or more. Some users report not being able to read fine print the day after consuming it.
Unlike the visual trip of serotonergic psychedelics such as LSD and psilocybin, scopolamine hallucinations are often repetitive, unpleasant, and nearly indistinguishable from reality. In general, users widely regard the cognitive effects of scopolamine at common-to-strong doses as negative and dysphoric. These effects can include:
- Vivid, realistic hallucinations (picking up “phantom objects” or talking to people who aren’t there)
- Sedation (low doses)
- Stimulation (high doses)
- Anxiety and panic
- Memory loss
- Suggestibility enhancement
The physical effects of scopolamine can include:
- Dry mouth
- Pupil dilation
- Flushed skin
- Urinary retention
- Increased body temperature
- Increased heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
Due to scopolamine’s anticholinergic effects, the drug has a wide array of adverse effects. Most prominently, scopolamine leads to a decrease in body secretions by antagonizing muscarinic receptors. In general, the side effects may include:
- Dry mouth
- Urinary retention
- Blurred vision
- Dilated pupils
While the recreational use of scopolamine is inadvisable, following harm reduction practices and having a trip sitter present to provide an environment of physical and psychological safety is absolutely essential.
As a result of its potent deliriant properties, users should never combine scopolamine with other hallucinogens. In addition, it is dangerous to combine scopolamine with other anticholinergics, analgesics, stimulants, alcohol, and zolpidem.
Taking high doses of scopolamine, especially while not under medical supervision, can be dangerous or potentially deadly. Overdoses can lead to “anticholinergic syndrome,” a potentially fatal condition characterized by tachycardia (dangerously fast heart rate), psychosis, delirium, vivid hallucinations, seizures, and coma.
Patients with narrow-angle glaucoma should not use scopolamine, since the drug can dangerously raise intraocular pressure. Moreover, those with an allergy to belladonna alkaloids should not use scopolamine .
Is Scopolamine Legal?
Scopolamine is not a controlled substance in the United States. It is legal to obtain a prescription for scopolamine from a physician. Nightshade plants containing scopolamine, such as Datura and Henbane, are also uncontrolled and federally legal to cultivate, buy, possess, and distribute.
Scopolamine isn’t in the 1971 UK Misuse of Drugs Act, and is therefore not a controlled substance in the United Kingdom.
In Canada, transdermal scopolamine patches are purchasable over the counter.
RS Contributing Author: Dylan Beard
Dylan Beard is a freelance science writer and editor based in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. After finishing his physics degree and dabbling in neuroscience research at UC Santa Barbara in 2017, he returned to his first love: writing. As a long-term fan of the human brain, he loves exploring the latest research on psychedelics, nootropics, psychology, consciousness, meditation, and more. When not writing, you can probably find him on hiking trails around Oregon and Washington or listening to podcasts. Feel free to follow him on Insta @dylancb88.