Central anticholinergic syndrome (CAS) in anesthesia and intensive care

Acta Anaesthesiol Belg. 1989;40(3):219-28.


Many of the drugs used in anesthesia and intensive care may cause blockade of the central cholinergic neurotransmission. Acetylcholine is of significance in modulation of the interaction among most other central transmitters. The clinical picture of the central cholinergic blockade, known as the central anticholinergic syndrome (CAS), is identical with the central symptoms of atropine intoxication. This behaviour consists of agitation including seizures, restlessness, hallucinations, disorientation or signs of depression such as stupor, coma and respiratory depression. Such disturbances may be induced by opiates, benzodiazepines, phenothiazines, butyrophenones, ketamine, etomidate, propofol, nitrous oxide, and halogenated inhalation anesthetics as well as by H2-blocking agents such as cimetidine. There is an individual predisposition for CAS--but unpredictable from laboratory findings or other signs. Reports of postanesthetic occurrence of the CAS requiring treatment are not unanimous, varying between 1 and 40%. Differential diagnosis of the CAS includes disorders of glucose and electrolyte metabolism, severe hormonal imbalance, respiratory disorders (hypoxia, hypercarbia), hypothermia, hyperthermia and neuropsychiatric diseases (cerebral hypoxia, stroke, catatony, acute psychosis). The CAS may considerably impair the postanesthetic period especially when agitation is prevalent, which may endanger the patient or the surgical results. The diagnosis is confirmed ex iuvantibus by the sudden increase in the acetylcholine level in the brain. This is achieved with physostigmine, a cholinesterase inhibitor able to easily cross the blood-brain barrier. Its peripheral muscarinic effects are minimal. Postanesthetic CAS can be prevented by administration of physostigmine during the anesthesia procedure. During intensive care (IC), agitated forms of CAS may occur in patients undergoing mechanical ventilation, particularly during prolonged high-dose sedation. Artificial ventilation of such patients becomes very difficult and muscle relaxation may be necessary. In these cases of IC-CAS, physostigmine is of value and has proven beneficial during weaning from mechanical ventilation. Dealing with the CAS for more than a decade has improved knowledge of the central cholinergic transmission. For example, it can be said that CAS occurs alongside general anesthesia, being no more than a frequent side-effect. Furthermore, acetylcholine is involved in nociception through the endorphinergic and the serotoninergic systems. There is a close relation between the central cholinergic transmission and actions of nitrous oxide. Moreover, cholinergic transmission is involved in withdrawal from (among others) alcohol, opiates, hallucinogens and nitrous oxide. In some intoxications with psychoactive agents, physostigmine is useful for reversal of the central nervous symptoms of the acute intoxication itself. In addition it can be used for prevention of some withdrawal states. In

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthetics / adverse effects*
  • Atropine / poisoning
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / chemically induced*
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology
  • Central Nervous System Diseases / therapy
  • Cholinergic Fibers / drug effects
  • Critical Care
  • Humans
  • Parasympatholytics / adverse effects*
  • Syndrome


  • Anesthetics
  • Parasympatholytics
  • Atropine