Curare is a poison, that was used as an arrow poison by Native South Americans. Actually, curare is any of a number of such substances, all similar. The main active substance of curare is tubocurarine. It is an alkaloid that can be extracted from several plants, including Chondodendron Tomentosum . The poison produces muscle paralysis by interfering with neuro-muscular junctions. It inhibits reception at the receptor sites of skeletal muscles. Highly innervated muscles are affected first.

In recent years curare has been put to medical use. Anaesthesia-induced complications are reduced when curare is added to the anaesthetic, as a smaller amount of anaesthesia is necessary for inducing the necessary muscle relaxation.

Modern advancements in medicine allowed scientists to discover curare's physiological effects. Before, though, all science knew was that in large amounts curare could kill, and in small amounts inhibit (apparently), nervous trasmission. This basically means that doctors could see that when a small amount of curare was given to a patient, he acted exactly as if under anaesthesia, or in a coma. His body becomes relaxed and he does not respond to pain. Now, when a person is anaesthesised, all of his nervous system is affected (sensory neurons and motor neurons). So he can neither feel nor move. Curare, on the other hand, does not affect the sensory nervous system. So unlike with anaesthesia, the person can feel everything, but his muscles cannot move.

From the doctor's side, however, there is no way to tell the difference just by looking, and there was no reason to assume curare acts this way. So operations were performed using curare as the anaesthetic. The patients felt EVERYTHING, but could do nothing. Doctors did not believe the patients' complaints at first, but when they saw that there were many such reports, they began to believe them, and stopped using curare alone in surgery.

In 1944 a certain Dr. Smith at a state university in Utah, volunteered for an experiment that untill this day has been considered a classic act of heroism in the world of medicine. He allowed himself to be injected with curare by a collegue, whilst he and his collegue did not know what the outcome of the experiment would be.

Dr. Smith described what he experienced when the poison started to work and the first signs of paralysis started to show. He reported that at first he lost control of his mouth and throat. He couldn't swallow and had the feeling to choke in his own saliva. After that the muscles from his arms and legs started to fail and paralysis really started to kick in. Finally his respiratory system started to fail, and he felt that he would die by suffocation. Only heart and brain continued their work. The observing doctors noticed that breathing became difficult for Dr. Smith, and allowed him to breathe pure oxygen. They kept it going for a while untill finally they ended the experiment.

Dr. Smith stated afterwards : "It felt like being buried alive". His experiment was very useful, for the future use of curare as an anaesthetic. Lets hear it for Dr. Smith!

source: Dramatische Medizin Orell Füßli Verlag, Zürich

Cu*ra"re, Cu*ra"ri (k?-r?"r?), n. [Native name. Cf. Wourall.]

A black resinoid extract prepared by the South American Indians from the bark of several species of Strychnos (S. toxifera, etc.). It sometimes has little effect when taken internally, but is quickly fatal when introduced into the blood, and used by the Indians as an arrow poison.

[Written also urari, woorali, woorari, etc.]


© Webster 1913.

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