Waking fear when under in surgery

ELIZABETH NORTON
Last updated 05:00 07/03/2013

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The prospect of undergoing surgery while not fully "under" may sound like the stuff of horror movies, but one patient in a thousand remembers moments of awareness while under general anaesthesia, physicians estimate.

The memories are sometimes neutral images or sounds of the operating room, but occasionally patients report being fully aware of pain, terror, and immobility.

Though surgeons scrupulously monitor vital signs, such as pulse and blood pressure, anaesthesiologists have no clear signal of whether the patient is conscious.

But a new study finds that the brain may produce an early-warning signal that consciousness is returning — one that's detectable by electroencephalography (EEG), the recording of neural activity via electrodes on the skull.

"We've known since the 1930s that brain activity changes dramatically with increasing doses of anaesthetic," said the study's corresponding author, anesthesiologist Patrick Purdon of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

"But monitoring a patient's brain with EEG has never become routine practice."

Beginning in the 1990s, some anaesthesiologists began using an approach called the bispectral (BIS) index, in which readings from a single electrode are connected to a device that calculates, and displays, a single number indicating where the patient's brain activity falls on a scale of 100 (fully conscious) to zero (a "flatline" EEG).

Anything between 40 and 60 is considered the target range for unconsciousness, but this index and other similar ones are only indirect measurements, Purdon explains.

In 2011, a team led by anaesthesiologist Michael Avidan at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, found that monitoring with the BIS index was slightly less successful at preventing awareness during surgery than the nonbrain-based method of measuring exhaled anaesthesia in the patient's breath.

Of the 2861 patients monitored with the BIS index, seven had memories of the surgery, whereas only two of 2852 patients whose breath was analysed remembered anything.

Despite that, Purdon and his co-workers were hopeful that an "unconsciousness signature" in the brain could be found.

Last year, the team worked with three epilepsy patients who'd had electrodes implanted in their brains in preparation for surgery to reduce their seizures.

Recording from single neurons in the cortex, where awareness is thought to reside, the researchers gave the patients an injection of the anaesthetic propofol.

They asked the volunteers to press a button whenever they heard a tone, recording the activity of the neurons.

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Loss of consciousness, defined as the point when the patients stopped pressing the button, was immediate — 40 seconds after injection.

Just as immediately, groups of neurons began to emit a characteristic slow oscillation, a kind of ripple in the cells' electrical field.

The neurons weren't entirely inactive, but bursts of activity occurred only at specific points in this oscillation, resulting in inconsistent brain cell activity.

- SCIENCE NOW

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