Simon Cotton takes a look at those compounds that find themselves in the news or relate to our everyday lives.

In this issue:strychnine

Structure of strychnine

If you were asked what the first Olympic performance enhancing drug was, you might think of an anabolic steroid, perhaps or maybe an amphetamine? It was, in fact, strychnine!

I thought that strychnine was poisonous? 

It is - a dose of around 50 mg can be lethal, but at much lower doses it acts as a stimulant, and it was used as such in Victorian times. Stimulant tablets containing strychnine continued to be sold as proprietary tonics well into the second half of the 20th century. 

Who used it? 

The British-born American marathon runner Thomas Hicks, won gold at that event in the 1904 Olympic Games, held at St Louis, Missouri. The race was held on a dreadfully hot day - over 32°C - on a dusty track of a course. 

After a while, Hicks was struggling badly, so his trainers injected him with a milligram of strychnine, and gave him a glass of brandy. Five miles before the finish, they had to give him another injection. He got over the line and collapsed - the combination nearly killed him. 

And he finished first? 

He actually came in second, but still won the Gold medal because Fred Lorz, who came in first, was found to have covered nearly half the course in a car. 

So Hicks went on to have a successful athletic career? 

No, he seems to have given up athletics the following year, and lived to the age of 88. 

Why is strychnine so toxic? 

It particularly affects the motor nerves in the spinal cord, and these control muscle contraction. It binds to a glycine receptor. The strychnine does not stop glycine from binding, but actually means that nerve impulses are passed along at much lower neurotransmitter levels. People with strychnine poisoning have violent convulsions with arching of their back; their jaw muscles contract, so they die with a dreadful grin on their face. 

How does it enhance performance, then? 

It seems possible that it is linked with the effects of strychnine on the nervous system, but no one knows for sure.