Nerve agents wreak havoc on your brain and body - here's how they work and why they're so lethal

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  • Chemical weapons called nerve agents were likely used in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, a former Russian spy, and his daughter Yulia.
  • The chemicals attack the spaces between nerves and muscles to overwhelm essential bodily functions.
  • Victims may stop their breathing and convulse, which can lead to death.


Nerve agents kill victims with gruesome efficiency - after triggering unconscionable suffering through their powerful poisoning effects.

UK authorities now think nerve agents were used in the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

On Sunday, passers-by found the two collapsed on a public bench. Paramedics rushed them a nearby hospital, where they remain in critical condition as of Thursday.

The BBC reported that a "very rare" nerve agent was used against the Skripals. So it was probably not one of the five most common: tabun, sarin, soman, GF, and VX. (North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is accused of having his agents use VX in the 2017 assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam.)

In pure form, each agent a colorless and mostly odorless liquid. Any nerve agent can affect a person through the skin, breathing, ingestion, or all three routes, depending on how it's used. For example, VX resembles a thick oil but dissolves in water (a drop killed Kim Jong Nam), while sarin (which was spread over a Syria's Idlib province on April 4, 2017) quickly evaporates into the air.

How nerve agents attack the body and brain

These two graphics illustrate what nerve agents do to the body and how they work.

nerve agent chemical weapons symptoms effects sarin vx tabun soman gf business insiderNerve agents like tabun, sarin, soman, GF, and VX all have similar effects on the body, depending on the route of exposure.Diana Yukari/Business Insider

To produce these symptoms, nerve agents attack the body's cholinergic system, which is used to transmit signals between the brain and muscle tissues.

The chemicals specifically target an enzyme that drifts in the spaces, or synapses, between nerve cells and muscle cells. There, they persist and constantly trigger muscles into overdrive.

This can paralyze victims, stop their breathing, and trigger convulsions, all of which can lead to death.

how nerve agent chemical weapons work biochemistry sarin vx tabun soman gf business insiderNerve agents like tabun, sarin, soman, GF, and VX all target the connections between nerves and muscles.Diana Yukari/Business Insider

Diana Yukari contributed to a previous version of this post.

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