Tuesday, May 06, 2008


Reserpine is a powerful plant alkaloid that used to be used to control psychotic behavior and treat certain cancers. Unfortunately, it's severe side effects and unpredictable behavior has limited it's usefulness. The drug has been replaced by more reliable treatments.

Many plants contain mildly toxic alkaloids but in most cases the concentrations are not high enough to cause a problem.1 Reserpine is concentrated in Rauwolfia serpentina (Indian snakeroot) and this plant has been used for several thousand years in treating a number of aliments. One of the main effects of reserpine is to block the action of dopamine. This blockage causes symptom's that resemble Parkinson's disease. They can be relieved by treating the patient with L-dopa [Monday's Molecule #70].

My first exposure to research was a summer job (1966) in the lab of George Setterfield at Carleton University in Ottawa (Canada). The project was to identify crystal-like inclusions in the cells of Rauwolfia serpentina. The hypothesis was that these inclusions were composed of alkaloids, especially reserpine. As I recall, I didn't make much progress. The inclusions weren't always visible and my suspicion was that they could have been an artifact of the fixation process.

I haven't been able to find any mentions of plant alkaloid inclusions in the literature. Does anyone know this field?

1. It's much safer to eat meat.


  1. I'm moderately sure (within the limitations of memory of long lists of meds) that my mother was on Reserpine -- perhaps oddly, since she also had Parkinsonism. The last four years of her life were a (not wildly successful) juggling act to balance the L-Dopa against the anti-psychotics, so as to give her some mobility, without hallucinations and delusions. It was not a pleasant time :-(.

  2. "1. It's much safer to eat meat."

    Ah, but animals eat the plants first any ways. If you are what you eat, then you are what you ate has eaten!