Nerve agents attack the nervous system. All such agents function the same way resulting in cholinergic crisis: they inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, which is responsible for the breakdown of acetylcholine (ACh) in the synapses between nerves that control muscle contraction. If the agent cannot be broken down, muscles are prevented from relaxing and they are effectively paralyzed.:131–139 This includes the heart and the muscles used for breathing. Because of this, the first symptoms usually appear within seconds of exposure and death can occur via asphyxiation or cardiac arrest in a few minutes.
Initial symptoms following exposure to nerve agents (like sarin) are a runny nose, tightness in the chest, and constriction of the pupils. Soon after, the victim will have difficulty breathing and will experience nausea and salivation. As the victim continues to lose control of bodily functions, involuntary salivation, lacrimation, urination, defecation,
gastrointestinal pain and vomiting will be experienced. Blisters and burning of the eyes and/or lungs may also occur. This phase is followed by initially myoclonic jerks (muscle jerks) followed by status epilepticus -type epileptic seizure. Death then comes via complete respiratory depression, most likely via the excessive peripheral activity at the neuromuscular junction of the diaphragm.:147–149
The effects of nerve agents are long lasting and increase with continued exposure. Survivors of nerve agent poisoning almost invariably suffer chronic neurological damage and related psychiatric effects. Possible effects that can last at least up to 2–3 years after exposure include blurred vision, tiredness, declined memory, hoarse voice, palpitations, sleeplessness, shoulder stiffness and eye strain. In people exposed to nerve agents, serum and erythrocyte acetylcholinesterase in the long-term are noticeably lower than normal and tend to be lower the worse the persisting symptoms are.
Mechanism of action
When a normally functioning motor nerve is stimulated, it releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which transmits the impulse to a muscle or organ. Once the impulse is sent, the enzyme acetylcholinesterase immediately breaks down the acetylcholine in order to allow the muscle or organ to relax.
Nerve agents disrupt the nervous system by inhibiting the function of the enzyme acetylcholinesterase by forming a covalent bond with its active site, where acetylcholine would normally be broken down (undergo hydrolysis). Acetylcholine thus builds up and continues to act so that any nerve impulses are continually transmitted and muscle contractions do not stop. This same action also occurs at the gland and organ levels, resulting in uncontrolled drooling, tearing of the eyes (lacrimation) and excess production of mucus from the nose (rhinorrhea).
The reaction product of the most important nerve agents, including soman, sarin, tabun and VX, with acetylcholinesterase were solved by the U.S. Army using X-ray crystallography in the 1990s. The reaction products have been confirmed subsequently using different sources of acetylcholinesterase and the closely related target enzyme, butyrylcholinesterase. The X-ray structures clarify important aspects of the reaction mechanism (e.g., stereochemical inversion) at atomic resolution and provide a key tool for antidote development.
Atropine and related anticholinergic drugs act as antidotes to nerve agent poisoning because they block acetylcholine receptors, but they are poisonous in their own right. Some synthetic anticholinergics, such as biperiden, may counteract the central symptoms of nerve agent poisoning better than atropine, since they pass the blood–brain barrier better than atropine. While these drugs will save the life of a person affected by nerve agents, that person may be incapacitated briefly or for an extended period, depending on the extent of exposure. The endpoint of atropine administration is the clearing of bronchial secretions. Atropine for field use by military personnel is often loaded in an autoinjector (e.g. ATNAA), for ease of use in stressful conditions.
Pralidoxime chloride, also known as 2-PAM chloride, is also used as an antidote. Rather than counteracting the initial effects of the nerve agent on the nervous system as does atropine, pralidoxime chloride reactivates the poisoned enzyme (acetylcholinesterase) by scavenging the phosphoryl group attached on the functional hydroxyl group of the enzyme. Though safer to use than atropine, it takes longer to act.
Revival of acetylcholinesterase with pralidoxime chloride works more effectively on nicotinic receptors while blocking acetylcholine receptors with atropine is more effective on muscarinic receptors. Often, severe cases of poisoning are treated with both drugs.
Countermeasures in development
Butyrylcholinesterase is under development by the U.S. Department of Defense as a prophylactic countermeasure against organophosphate nerve agents. It binds nerve agent in the bloodstream before the poison can exert effects in the nervous system.
Both purified acetylcholinesterase and butyrylcholinesterase have demonstrated success in animal studies as "biological scavengers" (and universal targets) to provide stoichiometric protection against the entire spectrum of organophosphate nerve agents. Butyrylcholinesterase currently is the preferred enzyme for development as a pharmaceutical drug primarily because it is a naturally circulating human plasma protein (superior pharmacokinetics) and its larger active site compared with acetylcholinesterase may permit greater flexibility for future design and improvement of butyrylcholinesterase to act as a nerve agent scavenger.