Anyone perusing our Chemical of the Week molecules may notice that many pharmacologically active molecules are very large and complex. However, this is not always the case. An interesting exception is nitrous oxide, also known as dinitrogen monoxide. The nitrous oxide molecule is made of only two nitrogen (N) atoms and one oxygen (O) atom and so is very simple.
Nitrous oxide works as a general painkiller and anaesthetic and was first used in dentistry in the 17th and 18th centuries. Interestingly, it is still used today in modern dentistry and some medical procedures. This chemical has a side effect of inducing a supposedly pleasant feeling of euphoria and hence is frequently known by its slang name of “laughing gas.”
Although it is a simple molecule, nitrous oxide appears to produce its effects on the body through a complex series of processes, involving the inhibition of ion transport and other mechanisms. Not that many medical procedures that were popular two hundred years ago are still around, so nitrous oxide deserves some admiration, if only for its longevity!