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What is Truth Serum?

Question: What is Truth Serum?


If you watched movie "True Lies" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, you probably remember the scene where the terrorists captured heroic CIA secret agent, played by Arnold. The terrorists gave him a shot of a drug that would make him disclose secret information. This drug was supposed to be the "truth serum".

This drug received its nickname "truth serum" after its effects. After taking "truth serum" the patients become very communicative, sharing their thoughts without hesitation. It is common misperception to assume that the truth serum will make you tell the truth. The patient may lose the inhibition, but will not lose self-control. Therefore, the patient will not tell the truth if he/she chooses not to do so. Thus, the episode in the movie "True Lies" involving the truth serum is not presented correctly to the viewers, because Arnold could easily lied to the terrorists.

I decided to look up information on truth serum to find out what it is and how it works. Dorlands' Illustrated Medical Dictionary describes truth serum as "ultra-short-acting barbiturate (drug) to produce general anesthesia, … and for narcoanalysis in psychiatric disorders." The proper name for this drug is thiopental sodium; it is also called Sodium Pentothal, because it is actually a trademark of Abbott Laboratories - the drug's manufacturer. Sodium Pentothal is a yellow crystal, which can be dissolved in water or alcohol. It has alliaceous, garlic-like odor.

If you were to drink a glass of water with Sodium Pentothal, it would depress your central nervous system, slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure. All of the listed above affects are the functions of any sedative. Sodium Pentothal is commonly used as an anesthetic during surgery. The patient is unconscious within 30 to 60 seconds after the drug administration to the veins. The duration of the anesthesia is very short; it only causes a few minutes of sedation.

Veterinarians also use Sodium Pentothal. When an animal is injured and needs an examination, a quick dose of the drug by tranquilizer dart gives few minutes to the veterinarian to do the examination. It can also be used to calm down a large animal that needs to be shipped from one place to another. Sodium Pentothal slows the metabolism and minimizes the stress and excitement.

This drug has another important property. Sodium Pentothal is a radioprotective agent, which minimizes the effect of radiation. When radiation is present, it attacks the body's tissues on molecular level. Many of our body cells have a "free radical", a species with an electron that is loosely bound to the molecule. When a radiation (short wavelengths with high energy) contacts the free radical it removes the electron form the molecule, altering the molecule's original functions. Sodium Pentothal protects the cells by preventing the radiation electrons to bond with cell's free radicals. If this radioprotective agent is taken three to four hours before the exposure to the radiation, it prolongs the life of body cells even if the dose of radiation was lethal.

Psychiatrists as a part of narcotherapy also use Sodium Pentothal. This drug produces the state of full relaxation and makes patients more susceptible to suggestion, allowing the psychiatrists to uncover the repressed feelings or memories.

Now I found out what is the definition of the truth serum and what multiple functions it serves. Now if you and I will come across words "truth serum" we will know the general functions of it. Hopefully in the future, the media will also provide us with more correct information on "truth serum".


  1. Dorlands' Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 28th Edition WB Sounders Company, 1994.
  2. American Medical Association Drug Evaluations Annuals, 1995

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This article was prepared by: Svetlana Kadoshnikov , Chemistry 1, Spring 1998.

A disclaimer: Please be aware that these are student projects, produced as an educational exercise for the class. These articles were not written by experts on the topics.

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Modificado em: 18-01-1999

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