Going Under ... and Coming Back

Coma and general anesthesia demonstrate vital similarities

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) General anesthesia is akin to a reversible coma, according to neuroscientists. This insight could lead to new approaches for general anesthesia as well as improved treatments for sleep abnormalities and coma patients.

According to researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Weill Cornell Medical Center, a fully anesthetized brain is more akin to the low-brain activity seen in coma patients than in someone asleep. Because anesthesia is drug-induced, it is reversible. Better understanding of emergence from general anesthesia could provide more insight for coma recovery. (Comas can last hours to years, and some patients never emerge.)

Coma and the brain under general anesthesia both represent a continuum of activity with common, engaged circuit mechanisms. This discovery is very exciting, according to Dr. Nicholas D. Schiff, a professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College and co-author of the study, because it provides new ways of understanding both states. Knowing this, researchers can devise therapeutic agents that tweak these circuits.

While general anesthesia is remarkably safe, according to Schiff, it still represents some complications for the elderly, who may experience a longer recovery time or have impaired cognition as a result.

Dr. Emery Brown of Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the study said learning about the different ways brains can be placed in this state with fewer side effects and risks could advance general anesthesiology as well as aid in developing new sleep aids and new ways for patients to recover from coma.

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Review Date: 
December 31, 2010
Last Updated:
January 3, 2011