Burundanga is a scary drug. According to news reports from Ecuador, the last thing a motorist could recall, after waking up minus his car and possessions, was being approached by two women; in Venezuela, a girl came round in hospital to find she had been abducted and sexually assaulted; in Colombia, customers of a street vendor were robbed after eating his spiked food. Each had been doped with burundanga, an extract of the brugmansia plant containing high levels of the psychoactive chemical scopolamine.
The scale of the problem in Latin America is not known, but a recent survey of emergency hospital admissions in Bogota, Colombia, found that around 70 per cent of patients drugged with burundanga had also been robbed, and around three per cent sexually assaulted. “The most common symptoms are confusion and amnesia,” says Juliana Gomez, a Colombian psychiatrist who treats victims of burundanga poisoning. “It makes victims disoriented and sedated so they can be easily robbed.” Medical evidence verifies this, but news reports allude to another, more sinister, effect: that the drug removes free will, effectively turning victims into suggestible human puppets. Although not fully understood by neuroscience, free will is seen as a highly complex neurological ability and one of the most cherished of human characteristics. Clearly, if a drug can eliminate this, it highlights a stark vulnerability at the core of our species.
Medical science has yet to establish if the drug affects our autonomy, but it is known that scopolamine affects memory and makes people more passive. Neuroscientist Renate Thienel, from the University of Newcastle in Australia, has studied its effects on problem-solving and memory tasks during brain scans. He notes that “scopolamine has a selective effect on memory, although other mental functions, such as planning and information manipulation, are unaffected”. This suggests victims remain cognitively nimble but unable to retain information.
The key seems to be that scopolamine blocks acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential to memory. Scans also reveal the drug affects the amygdala, a brain area controlling aggression and anxiety. This would explain scopolamine’s pacifying effect. Evidence also suggests victims tend to be confused and passive rather than unable to resist commands. Yet, until scopolamine’s role in the chemistry of free will is fully explored, we can only speculate that the criminal underworld has unwittingly stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of 21st-century neuroscience.
Scopolamine, also known as levo-duboisine, and hyoscine, is a tropane alkaloid drug with muscarinic antagonist effects. It is among the secondary metabolites of plants from Solanaceae (nightshade) family of plants, such as henbane, jimson weed and Angel’s Trumpets (Datura resp. Brugmansia spec.), and corkwood (Duboisia species ). Scopolamine exerts its effects by acting as a competitive antagonist at muscarinic acetylcholine receptors, specifically M1 receptors; it is thus classified as an anticholinergic, anti-muscarinic drug. (See the article on the parasympathetic nervous system for details of this physiology.)
Although scopolamine is often portrayed in the media as a dangerous drug, its anticholinergic properties give it some legitimate medical applications in very minute doses. As an example, in the treatment of motion sickness, the dose, gradually released from a transdermal patch, is only 330 micrograms (¬µg) per day. In rare cases, unusual reactions to ordinary doses of scopolamine have occurred including confusion, agitation, rambling speech, hallucinations, paranoid behaviors, and delusions. …
The effects of scopolamine were studied by criminologists in the early 20th century. However, scopolamine as a truth drug was not seriously tested for this purpose until the 1950s when it was experimented on by various intelligence agencies, including the CIA as part of Project MKULTRA. In 2009, it was proven that Czechoslovak communist secret police used scopolamine at least three times to obtain confessions from alleged anti-state conspirators.
… Scopolamine was one of the active principles in many of the “flying ointments” used by witches, sorcerers and fellow travellers of many countries and cultures from millennia ago ostensibly down to the late 19th century or even to the present day. Scopolamine and related tropanes contributed both to the flying sensations and hallucinations sought by users of these compounds. Potions, solids of various types, and other forms were also used in some cases.
These ointments could contain any number of ingredients with belladonna, henbane, and other plants of the belladonna and datura families being present almost invariably; they were applied to large areas of the skin with the objective being to see the Gods or spirits, and/or be transported to the Sabbat.
The hallucinations, sensation of flying, often a rapid increase in libido, and other characteristic effects of this practice are largely attributable to the CNS and peripheral effects of scopolamine and other active drugs present in the ointments such as atropine, hyoscyamine, mandragorine, scopoline, solanine, optical isomers of scopolamine and other tropane alkaloids.