There has been controversy regarding the precise mechanisms of anesthetic-induced unconsciousness, with two salient approaches that have emerged within systems neuroscience. One prominent approach is the "bottom up" paradigm, which argues that anesthetics suppress consciousness by modulating sleep-wake nuclei and neural circuits in the brainstem and diencephalon that have evolved to control arousal states. Another approach is the "top-down" paradigm, which argues that anesthetics suppress consciousness by modulating the cortical and thalamocortical circuits involved in the integration of neural information. In this article, we synthesize these approaches by mapping bottom-up and top-down mechanisms of general anesthetics to two distinct but inter-related dimensions of consciousness: level and content. We show how this explains certain empirical observations regarding the diversity of anesthetic drug effects. We conclude with a more nuanced discussion of how levels and contents of consciousness interact to generate subjective experience and what this implies for the mechanisms of anesthetic-induced unconsciousness.
Keywords: anesthesia; anesthetic mechanisms; awareness; connectivity; sleep; unconsciousness; wakefulness.