Strychnia, Or Strychnine, a poisonous vegetable alkaloid, discovered in 1818 by Pelletier and Caventou in the seed of the strychnos multiflora or St. Ignatius' bean, and the strychnos nux-vomica. (See Nux Vomica.) It is associated with brucia, an alkaloid having similar poisonous properties, but of much less strength. (See Brucia.) Strychnia is also said to be contained in larger proportions in the seeds of the strychnos tieute, a native of Java, from which the poison called upas tieute is extracted. In preparing strychnia, the seeds of the plant may be first softened by steam and sliced, dried, and ground, or they may be reduced to a pulp by beating. The following is Merck's process for extracting the alkaloid: The seeds are boiled for 24 or 36 hours in a closed boiler with water enough to cover them, acidulated with one eighth of its weight of sulphuric acid. They are then beaten into a paste, and the liquor is expressed. Excess of caustic lime is added, which throws down the alkaloids. The precipitate is then boiled in alcohol of specific gravity 0.850, and filtered hot. Strychnia and brucia arc deposited together in a colored and impure state, and may be separated by cold alcohol, which dissolves the brucia.
The remaining strychnia is then boiled in alcohol with a little animal charcoal, and the solution filtered boiling hot. On cooling, the strychnia crystallizes in small brilliant, colorless, octahedral crystals, soluble in about 7,000 parts of cold and 2,500 parts of boiling water. - Strychnia is inodorous, but has an exceedingly bitter taste, which is perceptible when the drug is dissolved in 1,000,000 parts of water. It is one of the most active and powerful poisons. The symptoms it produces are difficulty of breathing and a sense of suffocation, twitching of the limbs and tetanic convulsions, the body becoming arched in the back, often resting on the head and heels, a condition known as opisthotonos. The features are convulsed, attended by spasm of the jaws and choking. The attack occurs in paroxysms, between which the intellect is often clear at first, but becomes clouded after a succession of paroxysms. The medical properties of strychnia are like those of nux vomica, which was employed by the Arabian physicians. In small doses it acts as a tonic, and it is often given as an adjunct to laxative pills, particularly to dinner pills, in debilitated conditions of the muscular coat of the intestines.
When given in larger doses its action is directed to the motor nerves, probably through the medium of the spinal marrow. It produces trembling in the limbs, and a tendency to involuntary muscular contraction, as in tetanus, and frequent starts and spasms occur as from electric shocks, which are increased in intensity by a perseverance in the medicine. It sometimes produces pain in the head, vertigo, contracted pupils, and dimness of vision. The pulse is not particularly affected, though sometimes slightly accelerated. It has been employed on the continent of Europe as an antidote to the plague, in intermittent fevers, and as a remedy in mania, hysteria, rheumatism, and hydrophobia. It is said to have cured spasmodic asthma. Its peculiar influence upon the nerves of motion, to which attention was first called by Magendie, caused M. Fouquier, a French physician, to use it in paralytic affections, and it is now considered a standard remedy in palsy. It is a singular fact that its action is directed first to the muscles of the paralytic part. Its action varies in degree with different animals, being particularly marked upon the canine race. Pelletier and Caventou killed a dog in half a minute with one sixth of a grain.
One grain might prove fatal in the human subject; indeed, half a grain proved fatal in the case of Dr. Warner. One twelfth of a grain every four hours, repeated several times, will cause decidedly unpleasant symptoms; but a great difference in its effects is observed in different individuals, some being affected by the administration of one thirtieth of a grain two or three times repeated, while others have been said to take more than a grain at a time, and as much as three grains in the course of 24 hours. - Many antidotes have been proposed. According to M. Duclos, its poisonous effects subside under the application of negative electricity, while they are aggravated by positive. Kermes mineral has been recommended by M. Thorel, being thought by him to form an insoluble sulphuret, and ho recommends the administration at the same time of an emetic. Tannic acid, chlorine, and tinctures of iodine and bromine are regarded as the best antidotes by Prof. Bellini. The indications are to evacuate the stomach as quickly as possible, and for this the stomach pump is the most efficient means. In its absence sulphate of zinc or powdered mustard may be used.
To relieve the spasms various narcotics have been used, as conium, opium, and cannabis Indica, and the reports of their effect are in some cases decidedly favorable. Chloroform is said to have been used with good effects.