Gelsemium - Encyclopedia

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GELSEMIUM, a drug consisting of the root of Gelsemium nitidum, a clinging shrub of the natural order Loganiaceae, having a milky juice, opposite, lanceolate shining leaves, and axillary clusters of from one to five large, funnel-shaped, very fragrant yellow flowers, whose perfume has been compared with that of the wallflower. The fruit is composed of two separable jointed pods, containing numerous flat-winged seeds. The stem often runs underground for a considerable distance, and indiscriminately with the root it is used in medicine. The plant is a native of the United States, growing on rich clay soil by the side of streams near the coast, from Virginia to the south of Florida. In the United States it is commonly known as the wild, yellow or Carolina jessamine, although in no way related to the true jessamines, which belong to the order Oleaceae. It was first described in 1640 by John Parkinson, who grew it in his garden from seed sent by Tradescant from Virginia; at the present time it is but rarely seen, even in botanical gardens, in Great Britian.

The drug contains a volatile oil and two potent alkaloids, gelseminine and gelsemine. Gelseminine is a yellowish, bitter substance, readily soluble in ether and alcohol. It is not employed therapeutically. Gelsemine has the formula C,,H19N02, and is a colourless, odourless, intensely bitter solid, which is insoluble in water, but readily forms a soluble hydrochloride.

Gelsemium nitidum, half natural size; flower, nat. size.

The dose of this salt is from i i o th to of a grain. The British Pharmacopoeia contains a tincture of gelsemium, the dose of which is from five to fifteen minims.

The drug is essentially a nerve poison. It has no action on the skin and no marked action on the alimentary or circulatory systems. Its action on the cerebrum is slight, consciousness being retained even after toxic doses, but there may be headache and giddiness. The drug rapidly causes failure of vision, diplopia, ptosis or falling of the upper eyelid, dilatation of the pupil, and a lowering of the intra-ocular tension. This last action is doubtful. The symptoms appear to be due to a paralysis of the motor cells that control the internal and external ocular muscles. The most marked action of the drug is upon the anterior cornua of grey matter in the spinal cord. It can be shown by a process of experimental exclusion that to an arrest of function of these cells is due the paralysis of all the voluntary muscles of the body that follows the administration of gelsemium or gelsemine. Just before death the sensory part of the spinal cord is also paralysed, general anaesthesia resulting. The drug kills by its action on the respiratory centre in the medulla oblongata. Shortly after the administration of even a moderate dose the respiration is slowed and is ultimately arrested, this being the cause of death. In cases of poisoning the essential treatment is artificial respiration, which may be aided by the subcutaneous exhibition of strychnine.

Though the drug is still widely used, the rational indications for its employment are singularly rare and uncertain. The conditions in which it is most frequently employed are convulsions, bronchitis, severe and purposeless coughing, myalgia or muscular pain, neuralgia and various vague forms of pain.

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