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Dentist William Morton performed the first successful public test of a general anaesthetic in 1846. He first experimented on a hen, his dog, his goldfish, and himself before going to the Massachusetts General Hospital surgical theatre.
His concoction of sulfuric ether and oil from an orange (just for the fragrance) knocked a young man unconscious while a surgeon cut a tumour from his neck.
Today’s anaesthetic includes ether-based inhalants such as sevoflurane and isoflurane, and intravenous anaesthetic propofol.
General anaesthesia redefined surgery and medicine, but over a century later it still carries significant risks.
Generally speaking, anaesthetic drugs render people unconscious by changing how parts of the brain communicate. But scientists still don’t fully understand why.
In 2011, renowned anesthesiologist Emery Brown began using EEG to track patients’ brain waves.EEG records the electrochemical activity between communicating neurons in the brain.
During general anaesthesia, you can see, based on the patterns on the EEG monitor, how unconscious someone is, and you can dose your drugs accordingly. But testing whether EEG monitoring helps patients go under and recover better has produced mixed results.
Understanding how patients wake from anaesthesia and under what circumstances they struggle could also help scientists with how to treat disorders of consciousness, including coma.
Researchers can use general anaesthesia to control the transition into and out of unconsciousness. Like anaesthesia, a coma seems to alter essential communication between different brain networks.
Researchers already use anaesthesia to test potential coma therapies. For example, Ritalin, often prescribed for ADHD, has been found to bring rats back to consciousness after general anaesthesia.
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