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This article from NPR begins: “Sleep is not the state you’re going in, nor would it be the state in which someone could perform an operation on you,” explains Dr. Emery Brown. “What we need to do in order to be able to operate on you — to perform a procedure which is, indeed, very invasive — is to put you in a state which is effectively a coma which we can readily reverse.” Brown, a professor of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and a practicing anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, recently co-authored a study in The New England Journal of Medicine outlining what scientists know and don’t know about anesthesia. Unlocking its many mysteries, he says, will help scientists better understand consciousness and sleep — and could lead to new treatments for pain, depression and sleep disorders.”

For the layperson: general anesthetic is utilized in many surgeries, depending on the health of the patient, their individual preferences, and the type of surgery they will be undergoing. Most surgeries that require long periods of time cause a large amount of blood loss, expose the patient to intense cold, or affect the breathing usually require general anesthetic. Some of the drugs used to induce general anesthesia are propofol, thiopental, and ketamine to name a few. General anesthetic is overseen by a specially trained anesthesiologist and is given either intravenously or through a gas mask.

There are risks with all medical procedures, and undergoing general anesthetic has its risks. Depending on the health, the age of the patient, and type of procedure being done, serious conditions such as heart attack, stroke, and pneumonia can occur. Those that are very young, very old or pregnant are at the most risk for anesthetic related incidents. There is a growing list of known drug interactions, so it is important to note down any drugs being taken before surgery is performed.

Anesthesia involves altering the state of perception in the mind. This altering of brain patterns can be seen on an electroencephalogram (EEG). There are stages of anesthetic that include unconsciousness, amnesia (loss of memory), loss of pain perception, and loss of the ability to move. Researchers have found, that as the stages of anesthetic progress, mind activity increases but at very long intervals. This is an interesting state for researchers to study, as being under general anesthetic is somewhere between sleep and coma. As more research has been done, the brain patterns have shown that anesthetic is inducing a coma that is reversible. Indeed, in some cases, it is used for exactly that purpose.

There is much research going into what happens to the human mind when it is under anesthetic. Some of this is to see if we can find better ways to induce anesthesia in patients. Other studies are aimed at looking at how the mind works during anesthetic and using that information to apply it to diseases like Parkinson’s and dementia. There are a lot of unknowns about the human mind, and the ability to elucidate them has just become slightly within the grasp of researchers. By studying the brains of patients under anesthetic and comparing the patterns to those with epilepsy or other brain disorders, researchers may be able to find a way to use anesthetic to help treat diseases, not just use it during surgeries.