How Do General Anaesthetics Work?

Naturwissenschaften. 2001 May;88(5):201-13. doi: 10.1007/s001140100230.


Almost a century ago, Meyer and Overton discovered a linear relationship between the potency of anaesthetic agents to induce general anaesthesia and their ability to accumulate in olive oil. Similar correlations between anaesthetic potency and lipid solubility were later reported from investigations on various experimental model systems. However, exceptions to the Meyer-Overton correlation exist in all these systems, indicating that lipid solubility is an important, but not the sole determinant of anaesthetic action. In the mammalian central nervous system, most general anaesthetics act at multiple molecular sites. It seems likely that not all of these effects are involved in anaesthesia. GABAA- and NMDA-receptor/ion channels have already been identified as relevant targets. However, further mechanisms, such as a blockade of Na+ channels and an activation of K+ channels, also come into play. A comparison of different anaesthetics seems to show that each compound has its own spectrum of molecular actions and thus shows specific, fingerprint-like effects on different levels of neuronal activity. This may explain why there is no known compound that specifically antagonises general anaesthesia. General anaesthesia is a multidimensional phenomenon. Unconsciousness, amnesia, analgesia, loss of sensory processing and the depression of spinal motor reflexes are important components. It was not realised until very recently that different molecular mechanisms might underlie these different components. These findings challenge traditional views, such as the assumption that one anaesthetic can be freely replaced by another.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, General*
  • Anesthetics, General / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Mammals
  • Neurons / drug effects
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Potassium Channels / drug effects
  • Potassium Channels / physiology
  • Receptors, GABA-A / drug effects
  • Receptors, GABA-A / physiology
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / drug effects
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate / physiology


  • Anesthetics, General
  • Potassium Channels
  • Receptors, GABA-A
  • Receptors, N-Methyl-D-Aspartate