Mind controller: What is the 'burundanga' drug?
Burundanga is a scary drug. According to news reports from Ecuador, the last thing a motorist could recall, after waking up minus his car and possessions, was being approached by two women; in Venezuela, a girl came round in hospital to find she had been abducted and sexually assaulted; in Colombia, customers of a street vendor were robbed after eating his spiked food. Each had been doped with burundanga, an extract of the brugmansia plant containing high levels of the psychoactive chemical scopolamine.
The scale of the problem in Latin America is not known, but a recent survey of emergency hospital admissions in Bogotá, Colombia, found that around 70 per cent of patients drugged with burundanga had also been robbed, and around three per cent sexually assaulted. "The most common symptoms are confusion and amnesia," says Juliana Gomez, a Colombian psychiatrist who treats victims of burundanga poisoning. "It makes victims disoriented and sedated so they can be easily robbed." Medical evidence verifies this, but news reports allude to another, more sinister, effect: that the drug removes free will, effectively turning victims into suggestible human puppets. Although not fully understood by neuroscience, free will is seen as a highly complex neurological ability and one of the most cherished of human characteristics. Clearly, if a drug can eliminate this, it highlights a stark vulnerability at the core of our species.
Medical science has yet to establish if the drug affects our autonomy, but it is known that scopolamine affects memory and makes people more passive. Neuroscientist Renate Thienel, from the University of Newcastle in Australia, has studied its effects on problem-solving and memory tasks during brain scans. He notes that "scopolamine has a selective effect on memory, although other mental functions, such as planning and information manipulation, are unaffected". This suggests victims remain cognitively nimble but unable to retain information.
The key seems to be that scopolamine blocks acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter essential to memory. Scans also reveal the drug affects the amygdala, a brain area controlling aggression and anxiety. This would explain scopolamine's pacifying effect. Evidence also suggests victims tend to be confused and passive rather than unable to resist commands. Yet, until scopolamine's role in the chemistry of free will is fully explored, we can only speculate that the criminal underworld has unwittingly stumbled upon one of the greatest discoveries of 21st-century neuroscience.
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