What is unconsciousness in a fly or a worm? A review of general anesthesia in different animal models

Conscious Cogn. 2016 Aug;44:72-88. doi: 10.1016/j.concog.2016.06.017. Epub 2016 Jun 29.


All animals are rendered unresponsive by general anesthetics. In humans, this is observed as a succession of endpoints from memory loss to unconsciousness to immobility. Across animals, anesthesia endpoints such as loss of responsiveness or immobility appear to require significantly different drug concentrations. A closer examination in key model organisms such as the mouse, fly, or the worm, uncovers a trend: more complex behaviors, either requiring several sub-behaviors, or multiple neural circuits working together, are more sensitive to volatile general anesthetics. This trend is also evident when measuring neural correlates of general anesthesia. Here, we review this complexity hypothesis in humans and model organisms, and attempt to reconcile these findings with the more recent view that general anesthetics potentiate endogenous sleep pathways in most animals. Finally, we propose a presynaptic mechanism, and thus an explanation for how these drugs might compromise a succession of brain functions of increasing complexity.

Keywords: Caenorhabditis elegans; Drosophila; Electrophysiology; Isoflurane; Sleep; Synapse.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia, General*
  • Anesthesia, Inhalation*
  • Animals
  • Brain / drug effects*
  • Drosophila
  • Humans
  • Mice
  • Models, Animal*
  • Nematoda
  • Sleep / drug effects*