Featured Poison / Poisonous History

Anabasis aphylla and Project CHATTER: A Secret CIA Cold War Poison?

The period of time right after World War II was a dark and shady time for the United States. We had just exited hard fought wars on two fronts with the help of the Soviet Union, our ally. But the United States, and the United Kingdom, never fully trusted the Soviets, and saw them as potential conquerors, not liberators. Thus, when WWII ended, there was a mad dash to claim as many technological and scientific resources, including scientists, from the advanced Nazi Germany as possible. Now, I’m neither a historian nor a political scientist, but this started the largest pissing contest the Universe has ever seen . . . . let the Cold War begin.

In the fall of 1947 the United States commenced Project CHATTER, spearheaded by the U.S. Navy and under the direction of Lt. Charles Savage. The impetus for the program were reports that the Soviets had “amazing results” in developing and using “truth serums” for interogations (1). Not wanting to be left out in the cold, Project CHATTER was born. The goal was (1):

“focusing on the identification and testing of drugs in interrogations and the recruitment of agents. The research included laboratory experiments on both animal and human subjects.”

And that’s why I call this a dark period for the United States – the human testing. Now obviously, having experience in the world of Pharma, I’m not opposed to human (or animal) testing, it’s how we get all of our new pharmaceuticals, but to do it without the person’s consent is wrong. And Project CHATTER, which eventually led to Project MKUltra, did just that. But I digress.

Getting back to Project CHATTER, the testing of drugs included (1):

“Anabasis aphylla, scopolamine, and mescaline in order to determine their speech-inducing qualities. Overseas experiments were conducted as part of the project. The project expanded substantially during the Korean War, and ended shortly after the war, in 1953.”

And those three sentences perfectly sum up the who, what, when, where, and why.

Anabasis articulata by Joel Lode (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Anabasis articulata (close enough) by Joel Lode (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I’ve written about scopolamine and it’s history as the first “truth serum”, and mescaline is a well known psychoactive drug coming from peyote and has LSD-like effects, but the one that caught my eye was Anabasis aphylla, primarily because I wasn’t sure exactly what that would do.

Anabasis aphylla is a leafless shrub common throughout arid regions of Russia, and extends from the south all the way up to Siberia. So it’s common in Russia, and from what I can tell, not present or native in the U.S. It’s primary alkaloid is anabasine, with a bit of aphylline, pachycarpine and a bunch of miscellaneous others thrown into the mix (2). I already knew about anabasine, and I’ll share that with you in a bit, but the others? Not so much. So I did what I always do in just such an emergency. I collected papers.

I was hellbent on finding something cool and mysterious about these chemicals. I was emboldened when I found that nearly all of the research was published by Russians in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and that one constituent, lupinine, might have mild local anesthetic properties (3). Then depression set in when I finally realized that these things are boring and don’t do a damned thing.

Anabasine though, is interesting. It is a structural isomer – same molecular formula, but arranged differently – of nicotine. Based on the structures below, if you guessed that anabasine would have similar effects as those of nicotine, you’d be right, and well on your way to becoming a pharmacologist, or a medicinal chemist, or something.

Anabasine (left) and Nicotine (right)

Anabasine (left) and Nicotine (right)

Like nicotine (detailed here), anabasine is a nicotinic acetylcholine receptor agonist, despite what Wikipedia says (it says it’s an antagonist. NOTE: The Wikipedia page has been fixed!). It’s activity is only slightly less than nicotine, and at low doses has stimulant effects (4). Perhaps this is the reason why they might investigate Anabasis aphylla – a stimulant to make people a bit more chatty, hence the codename CHATTER. Duh.

Personally, I’m not buying any of it. I’m thinking some CIA dude freezing his ass off in the Soviet Union saw some reports about anabasine and Anabasis aphylla, saw some large scale extraction facilities and ran with it. The truth is, Russian researchers were doing a lot of work around anabasine, especially for use as an insecticide, and in 1935 manufactured 2,500 tons of anabasine containing products (5), much like the U.S. used nicotine by the ton after WWII. The conspiracy theory side of me thinks that the U.S. knew from the get-go that Anabasis aphylla was meaningless, and just used it as cover for what they really wanted to do: interrogate our own operatives to see if they would talk under duress and kick-start their research into other drugs, like LSD.

You may be feeling a little ripped off right now. You were expecting me to reveal something secret and mysterious enough to get myself placed on an NSA watchlist. Well I was too, so we can commiserate together. But to partially make up for this, let me talk about the toxicity of anabasine.

As mentioned, it’s an acetylcholine receptor agonist, and activates those receptors found in the peripheral nervous system (PNS). The consequence of stimulating the PNS, and in particular the autonomic portion that we can’t control, such as digestion and breathing, is that we invoke the mnemonic SLUDGE: Salivation, lacrimation, urination, defecation, GI upset, and emesis. All of these are insanely out of control when intoxicated with an acetylcholine receptor agonist, like anabasine. Compared to nicotine, anabasine is a bit less stimulating, but more toxic due to depressive effects and respiratory paralysis (4).

The other part of the PNS is the somatic portion, which we can control by way of our skeletal muscles. Acetylcholine receptors are also found in the neuromuscular junctions, which connects our nervous system to our muscles, and activation leads to muscle contraction.

Nicotiana glauca by Mark Marathon (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Nicotiana glauca by Mark Marathon (CC BY-SA 3.0)

And that’s what happened to a 60-year old man in California (6). He discovered a green, leafy plant growing wild in his garden, and in a fit of what-the-hell-was-he-thinking, decided to make a meal out of it. He fried up 10 leaves with his steak and ate it up. Five minutes later he was light-headed, sweating profusely, and experiencing naseau, vomiting, and diarrhea – the SLUDGE things. Instead of calling poison Control he decided to go to bed. Three hours after his meal, at 10 pm, he found that he couldn’t roll over in bed. By 5 am he couldn’t move – couldn’t lift his head, get out of bed, or even drink from a straw. He found help, but ended up staying in the hospital for a few days, and recovered just fine.

The plant he ate was Nicotiana glauca, and definitely not edible. It is a “wild tobacco” and goes by the name tree tobacco. It grows wild in dry regions throughout the American southwest, and is considered a weed and an invasive species. Of the alkaloids found in the leaves, approximately 85% is anabasine and 12% nicotine, while the roots are 51% anabasine and 35% nicotine (7).

So the lesson here is, and there’s always a lesson, is 1. Our governments, it doesn’t matter which one, are always up to something, and 2. Don’t go eating any strange plants, you may wind up dead . . . or spilling your nation’s secrets.


1. “Project MKUltra, The CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification“, Joint Hearing before the Select Committee on Intelligence and the Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources, United State Senate, 95th Congress, First Session. August 3rd, 1977.
2. Aslanov, Kh. A., A. I. Ishbaev, K. Inoyatova, Sh. Yusupov, A. S. Sadykov, and V. P. Zakharov. “A New Method for Isolating the Alkaloids of Anabasis Aphylla.” Chemistry of Natural Compounds 8.3 (1972): 319-21.
3. Sadykov, A. S., Kh. Kh. Khaitbaev, A. A. Abduvakhabov, A. A. Ishbaev, and Sh. M. Gafurova. “Synthesis of Local Anesthetics Derived from Lupinine.”Bulletin of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR Division of Chemical Science 32.11 (1983): 2338-344.
4. Haag, H. B. “A Contribution to the Pharmacology of Anabasine.” Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutic 48 (1933): 93-104.
5. Roark, R.C. “Review of information on anabasine and nornicotine.” United States Department of Agriculture,  Agricultural Research Administration,  Bureau of Entomology and Plant Quarantine (1945).
6. Mellick, Larry B., Thomas Makowski, Gary A. Mellick, and Rodney Borger. “Neuromuscular Blockade After Ingestion of Tree Tobacco (Nicotiana Glauca).” Annals of Emergency Medicine 34.1 (1999): 101-04.
7. Saitoh, Fumiyo, Masana Noma, and Nobumaro Kawashima. “The Alkaloid Contents of Sixty Nicotiana Species.” Phytochemistry 24.3 (1985): 477-80.


7 thoughts on “Anabasis aphylla and Project CHATTER: A Secret CIA Cold War Poison?

  1. I’m reminded of a very similar, though unfortunately fatal, case of N.Glauca poisoning in the literature:

    Long story short: A Thai laborer in Israel found wild-growing N.Glauca, mistook it for a Thai herb, & cooked a stew with it. The full-text of that case report sums the rest up very adequately:

    Case A—A 52-year-old Thai male was admitted to the intensive
    care unit due to a self-poisoning after eating a very small amount
    (three spoons) from his food. A few minutes later he threw up and
    went to sleep. Two hours later he felt severe headache, nausea and
    vomiting. External examination by paramedics showed no abnormal
    findings. After preliminary treatment he recovered gradually
    and was discharged by the paramedics.

    Case B—A 46-year-old Thai male ate leftovers of the same
    food. Two hours later and one hour before admission to the hospital,
    he felt nausea, headache, hypersalivation, vomiting, tachycardia,
    tachypnea, hypertension, and hyperthermia symptoms
    which are related to possible exposure to tobacco products. Very
    shortly thereafter the patient collapsed with cardiac arrest. External
    examination by paramedics yielded no abnormal findings.
    Toxicological screening for alcohols and acidic, basic, and neutral
    drugs was negative. Treatment was directed toward removing the
    poison and counteracting or controlling the patient’s signs. The patient
    was treated with intravenous fluids and respiratory support.
    Despite resuscitation efforts, circulation could not be restored and
    he died in intensive care six days after admission. An autopsy was
    not performed. Neither nicotine nor its metabolites were found in
    the urine or the blood extracts; however; anabasine was identified
    in large quantities in the residue from a basic extract of the urine
    and in smaller quantities in the blood by GC/MS, and it was also
    seen on a thin-layer chromatography (TLC).

    Nicotiana glauca: Definitely not edible!

    • I was actually surprised by how many I came across. Similar to the case of the Thai in Israel, there’s also one of a French woman in Israel who mistook it for “wild spinach”, and died. Hard for me to see the similarity with spinach. Thanks for reading!

  2. Pingback: Brugmansia: Angel’s Trumpet or the Devil’s? | Nature's Poisons

  3. Thanks for all the information! Are these compounds related to Curare? I saw, (on wikipedia of course), that Curare also acts on the nicotinic acetylcholine receptor.

  4. Pingback: Guachamacan: A 174-year-old Venezuelan Poison Mystery | Nature's Poisons

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