Today's insight comes from War of Nerves
by Jonathan Tucker... a couple of people have heard me relate this already; at least one, I believe, came away with the impression that I need to find things less unsavoury to make the object of my interest...
...anyhoo, the subject at hand is nerve agents, and first, a bit (OK, a lot) of background.
There are three acknowledged "families" of nerve agents. In order of increasing potency, they are:1. The G-agents
; tabun, sarin, soman and cyclosarin, discovered in that order by German researchers led by Paul Schraeder between 1936 and 1949.2. The V-agents
; chiefly, VX, discovered in Britain at the Porton Down chemical and biological weapons lab in the early 1950's.3. The Novichok agents
; developed in the Soviet Union after the signing of the Chemical Weapons Convention in the early 1970's. Next to nothing is known about these agents, but in Russian, novichok
They all belong to the organophosphate family of organic chemicals, and they all work the same way. They can be inhaled, or absorbed through the skin or the surface of the eyeball, and once in, they interfere with the function of voluntary motor nerves, which control things like movement, breathing and pupil dilation.
Muscle fibres work by contracting. Roughly, they do this when an electrical impulse, originating in the brain, arrives at their end of their attendant nerve and triggers the release of a neurotransmitter chemical across the synapse gap between the end of the nerve, the axon, and the dendrite attached to the muscle fibre. For voluntary muscle fibre dendrites, there is only one neurotransmitter; acetylcholine. When acetylcholine binds to receptors at the muscle fibre's dendrite, the muscle fibre contracts... and remains that way so long as the acetylcholine remains plugged in.
Relaxation of a contracted muscle fibre relies on the action of a pervasive enzyme, cholinesterase, which breaks down any acetylcholine it comes across. Under normal circumstances, this happens only an instant after an acetylcholine molecule has been released at an axon, floated across the synapse and bound to a receptor at a dendrite. The muscle fibre contraction caused by the acetylcholine is fleeting. To keep a muscle fibre contracted, the axon has to keep releasing fresh acetylcholine, and this requires fresh nerve impulses to keep arriving from the brain.
This is where nerve agents come in. They are irreversible cholinesterase inhibitors
. They bind to cholinesterase molecules and deactivate them, so the cholinesterase ceases breaking down acetylcholine, which, in turn, stays bound to receptors at muscle fibre dendrites, causing extended contraction of voluntary muscles, which manifests as pinpoint pupils, drooling, loss of bowel, bladder and motor control, breathing difficulty and convulsions. Depending on the severity of the exposure to the nerve agent, those all get progressively worse until unconsciousness and death from asphyxiation ensue. Not nice...
...but surprisingly simple to counteract. Since Vietnam, armies have been equipping their soldiers with autoinjector kits to deliver a nerve agent antidote composed of a mixture of two drugs; atropine and pralidoxime. Atropine is an anticholinergic; it knocks acetylcholine molecules out of their receptor sites at the dendrite and takes their place, preventing the built-up acetylcholine from causing muscle contractions by giving it nowhere to bind. Pralidoxime, belonging to the oxime family of compounds, reactivates inhibited cholinesterase molecules by knocking off the nerve agent group bound to it. All a soldier exposed to nerve agent on the battlefield has to do is find his autoinjector, press it to his thigh, click a button, and he'll sustain a painful-as-all-buggery intramuscular injection of antidote which'll keep him for between 15 minutes and half an hour, depending on how good his gas mask is, and how quickly he gets the fuck outta Dodge. Either way, he can look forward to jabbing himself at regular intervals for most of the rest of the day... and if he overdoes it, and keeps jabbing after the nerve agent's been suppressed and his cholinesterase is working as per normal, the atropine will cause an accelerated or irregular heart rate, dizziness, nausea and other symptoms which could be interpreted as continuing effects of nerve agent and cause for another hit of antidote, which will cause an even more accelerated or irregular hear rate... during the first Gulf War, Israel issued atropine autoinjectors to civilians as a precaution against Iraqi chemical attacks. Dozens were hospitalised after they gave themselves "precautionary" injections during air raid alerts.
Which lands us in the Middle East, the site of the focus of our story. After the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, picking over battlefield wreckage, Israeli military intelligence happened across boxes of autoinjectors inscribed with Cyrillic (so, Russian, right?) writing. These eventually made their way to American chemical warfare researchers, where the autoinjectors were found to contain not just the usual mixture of atropine and pralidoxime plus stabilising agents and whatnot, but also a second anticholinergic; benactyzine. In the lab, benactyzine proved to be a much more aggressive anticholinergic than atropine. Clearly, useful, and it gibed with the rest of intelligence finds after Yom Kippur... captured wreckage of Soviet-supplied Egyptian and Syrian armoured vehicles and tanks showed their chemical warfare countermeasures were considerably more elaborate than what could be found on American and NATO designs. Clearly, the Soviets took chemical warfare seriously. Chances are they knew what they were doing when they started making nerve agent antidote autoinjectors with beactyzine. The Americans swiftly halted production of their vanilla atropine/pralidoxime autoinjectors and put into action a crash program to build up a stockpile of 7 million
Meanwhile, the labs took a closer look at the miracle new antidote component, and, as it was noticed that the Cyrillic text on the original boxes of salvaged autoinjectors wasn't Russian, but Bulgarian, human testing of benactyzine in antidote concentrations showed it to be a powerful hallucinogen. The antidote fomulation had been put together by Bulgarian researchers, it had been put into production after insufficient testing to uncover its trippy properties, and Egypt had probably bought it because the Bulgarians were selling it cheap.
The Americans ended up stuck with digging a hole big enough to fit 7 million psychadelic nerve agent antidote autoinjectors and deep enough to keep even the most determined hippies from getting to it, but that's not quite the same as the idea of being in combat, having a nerve agent shell explode nearby and end up breathing through a gas mask, starfished on the ground, with aerosol clouds of nerve agent wafting by, all while thoroughly off your nut... go ahead; try and imagine a worse