Mechanisms of anesthesia: towards integrating network, cellular, and molecular level modeling

Neuropsychopharmacology. 2003 Jul:28 Suppl 1:S40-7. doi: 10.1038/sj.npp.1300142.


The mechanisms of anesthesia are surprisingly little understood. The present article summarizes current knowledge about the function of general anesthetics at different organization levels of the nervous system. It argues that a consensus view can be constructed, assuming that general anesthetics modulate the activity of ion channels, the main targets being GABA and NMDA channels and possibly voltage-gated and background channels, thereby hyperpolarizing neurons in thalamocortical loops, which lead to disruption of coherent oscillatory activity in the cortex. Two computational cases are used to illustrate the possible importance of molecular level effects on cellular level activity. Subtle differences in the mechanism of ion channel block can be shown to cause considerable differences in the modification of the oscillatory activity in a single neuron, and consequently in an associated network. Finally, the relation between the anesthesia problem and the classical consciousness problem is discussed, and some consequences of introducing the phenomenon of degeneracy into the picture are pointed out.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia / methods*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Models, Biological*
  • Nerve Net / drug effects*
  • Nerve Net / physiology*