Doctors often tell patients going under anesthesia that they’re going to sleep. But it’s actually more like going into a short-term coma.
The authors of a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine Thursday say that brain function during coma and under anesthesia are even closer than they had thought.
Dr. Emery Brown is an anesthesiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard and MIT who co-authored the study. He said a better understanding of what different states of consciousness have in common will allow doctors across disciplines to learn from each other’s work.
“If we start to pay closer attention to what happens to people as they recover from general anesthesia,” Brown said, “perhaps we can get insights into what happens when people recover from coma.”
A focus of the study was examining the processes by which people go into and out of different states of consciousness. But the causes of low brain activity are different in sedation and coma: medication versus, say, trauma to the head. Dr. Ausim Azizi, head of the neurology department at Temple University School of Medicine, said that difference limits the usefulness of drawing connections between coma and sedation.
“The EEG patterns may be close to anesthesia,” Azizi said. “But the pathology, or the molecular mechanisms of what happens to the brain is not similar.”