BOLD fMRI in infants under sedation: Comparing the impact of pentobarbital and propofol on auditory and language activation

J Magn Reson Imaging. 2013 Nov;38(5):1184-95. doi: 10.1002/jmri.24082. Epub 2013 Mar 22.


Purpose: To elucidate differences in the disruption of language network function, as measured by blood oxygenation level-dependent (BOLD) contrast functional MRI (fMRI), attributable to two common sedative agents administered to infants under clinical imaging protocols.

Materials and methods: The sedatives pentobarbital (Nembutal) and Propofol, administered clinically to infants at 1 year of age, were compared with respect to BOLD activation profiles in response to passive story-listening stimulation. An intermittent event-related imaging protocol was used with which the temporal evolution of language processing resulting from this stimulation was explored.

Results: Propofol and Nembutal were found to have distinct and complementary responses to story-listening. Propofol exhibited more activation in higher processing networks with increasing response toward the end of narrative stimulus. Nembutal, in contrast, had much more robust activation of primary and secondary sensory cortices but a decreasing response over time in fronto-parietal default-mode regions. This may suggest a breakdown of top-down feedback for Propofol versus the lack of bottom-up feed-forward processing for Nembutal.

Conclusion: Two popular sedative agents for use in children for clinical fMRI were found to induce distinct alteration of activation patterns from a language stimulus. This has ramifications for clinical fMRI of sedated infants and encourages further study to build a framework for more confident interpretation.

Keywords: Pentobarbital; Propofol; anesthesia; fMRI; infants; language; sedation.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Brain Mapping
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / administration & dosage
  • Infant
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Pentobarbital / administration & dosage*
  • Propofol / administration & dosage*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / drug effects*
  • Somatosensory Cortex / physiology*
  • Speech Perception / drug effects*
  • Speech Perception / physiology*


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Pentobarbital
  • Propofol