12 CLINICAL PHARMACOLOGY
12.1 Mechanism of Action
Atropine is an antimuscarinic agent since it antagonizes the muscarine-like actions of acetylcholine and other choline esters.
Atropine inhibits the muscarinic actions of acetylcholine on structures innervated by postganglionic cholinergic nerves, and on smooth muscles which respond to endogenous acetylcholine but are not so innervated. As with other antimuscarinic agents, the major action of atropine is a competitive or surmountable antagonism which can be overcome by increasing the concentration of acetylcholine at receptor sites of the effector organ (e.g., by using anticholinesterase agents which inhibit the enzymatic destruction of acetylcholine). The receptors antagonized by atropine are the peripheral structures that are stimulated or inhibited by muscarine (i.e., exocrine glands and smooth and cardiac muscle). Responses to postganglionic cholinergic nerve stimulation also may be inhibited by atropine but this occurs less readily than with responses to injected (exogenous) choline esters.
Atropine-induced parasympathetic inhibition may be preceded by a transient phase of stimulation, especially on the heart where small doses first slow the rate before characteristic tachycardia develops due to paralysis of vagal control. Atropine exerts a more potent and prolonged effect on heart, intestine and bronchial muscle than scopolamine, but its action on the iris, ciliary body and certain secretory glands is weaker than that of scopolamine. Unlike the latter, atropine in clinical doses does not depress the central nervous system but may stimulate the medulla and higher cerebral centers. Although mild vagal excitation occurs, the increased respiratory rate and (sometimes) increased depth of respiration produced by atropine are more probably the result of bronchiolar dilatation. Accordingly, atropine is an unreliable respiratory stimulant and large or repeated doses may depress respiration.
Adequate doses of atropine abolish various types of reflex vagal cardiac slowing or asystole. The drug also prevents or abolishes bradycardia or asystole produced by injection of choline esters, anticholinesterase agents or other parasympathomimetic drugs, and cardiac arrest produced by stimulation of the vagus. Atropine also may lessen the degree of partial heart block when vagal activity is an etiologic factor. In some patients with complete heart block, the idioventricular rate may be accelerated by atropine; in others, the rate is stabilized. Occasionally a large dose may cause atrioventricular (A-V) block and nodal rhythm.
Atropine Sulfate Injection, USP in clinical doses counteracts the peripheral dilatation and abrupt decrease in blood pressure produced by choline esters. However, when given by itself, atropine does not exert a striking or uniform effect on blood vessels or blood pressure. Systemic doses slightly raise systolic and lower diastolic pressures and can produce significant postural hypotension. Such doses also slightly increase cardiac output and decrease central venous pressure. Occasionally, therapeutic doses dilate cutaneous blood vessels, particularly in the "blush" area (atropine flush), and may cause atropine "fever" due to suppression of sweat gland activity in infants and small children.
The effects of intravenous atropine on heart rate (maximum heart rate) and saliva flow (minimum flow) after intravenous administration (rapid, constant infusion over 3 min.) are delayed by 7 to 8 minutes after drug administration and both effects are non-linearly related to the amount of drug in the peripheral compartment. Changes in plasma atropine levels following intramuscular administration (0.5 to 4 mg doses) and heart rate are closely overlapped but the time course of the changes in atropine levels and behavioral impairment indicates that pharmacokinetics is not the primary rate-limiting mechanism for the central nervous system effect of atropine.
Atropine disappears rapidly from the blood following injection and is distributed throughout the body. Exercise, both prior to and immediately following intramuscular administration of atropine, significantly increases the absorption of atropine due to increased perfusion in the muscle and significantly decreases the clearance of atropine. The pharmacokinetics of atropine is nonlinear after intravenous administration of 0.5 to 4 mg. Atropine's plasma protein binding is about 44% and saturable in the 2-20 μg/mL concentration range. Atropine readily crosses the placental barrier and enters the fetal circulation, but is not found in amniotic fluid. Much of the drug is destroyed by enzymatic hydrolysis, particularly in the liver; from 13 to 50% is excreted unchanged in the urine. Traces are found in various secretions, including milk. The major metabolites of atropine are noratropine, atropin-n-oxide, tropine, and tropic acid. The metabolism of atropine is inhibited by organophosphate pesticides.
The elimination half-life of atropine is more than doubled in children under two years and the elderly (>65 years old) compared to other age groups. There is no gender effect on the pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics (heart rate changes) of atropine.