Drugs used in general anesthesia do much more than induce sleep, according to researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia. For a recent study, they examined the effects of the common anesthesia drug propofol on synapses in the brain – the mechanisms by which nerve cells (neurons) communicate with each other.
They discovered that propofol disrupts these mechanisms and affects communication between neurons throughout the entire brain in a way that is different from sleep. This effect may explain why people often experience grogginess and disorientation after coming out of surgery, according to the researchers. It also may explain why the very young or very old – those whose brain connectivity is more vulnerable – may experience problems with general anesthesia.
Although general anesthesia is one of the most common medical procedures in the world, its full effects remain unclear. Developing a better understanding of the complex ways in which general anesthesia works could lead to improvements in drugs used during surgery.