Changes in the electroencephalogram during anaesthesia and their physiological basis

Br J Anaesth. 2015 Jul;115 Suppl 1:i27-i31. doi: 10.1093/bja/aev212.


The use of EEG monitors to assess the level of hypnosis during anaesthesia has become widespread. Anaesthetists, however, do not usually observe the raw EEG data: they generally pay attention only to the Bispectral Index (BIS™) and other indices calculated by EEG monitors. This abstracted information only partially characterizes EEG features. To properly appreciate the availability and reliability of EEG-derived indices, it is necessary to understand how raw EEG changes during anaesthesia. With hemi-frontal lead EEGs obtained under volatile anaesthesia or propofol anaesthesia, the dominant EEG frequency decreases and the amplitude increases with increasing concentrations of anaesthetic. Looking more closely, the EEG changes are more complicated. At surgical concentrations of anaesthesia, spindle waves (alpha range) become dominant. At deeper levels, this activity decreases, and theta and delta waves predominate. At even deeper levels, EEG waveform changes into a burst and suppression pattern, and finally becomes flat. EEG waveforms vary in the presence of noxious stimuli (surgical skin incision), which is not always reflected in BIS™, or other processed EEG indices. Spindle waves are adequately sensitive, however, to noxious stimuli: under surgical anaesthesia they disappear when noxious stimuli are applied, and reappear when adequate analgesia is obtained. To prevent awareness during anaesthesia, I speculate that the most effective strategy is to administer anaesthetic agents in such a way as to maintain anaesthesia at a level where spindle waves predominate.

Keywords: electroencephalogram; reticulate nuclei of thalamus; spindle; thalamus.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia*
  • Electroencephalography*
  • Humans