Spoken words are processed during dexmedetomidine-induced unresponsiveness

Br J Anaesth. 2018 Jul;121(1):270-280. doi: 10.1016/j.bja.2018.04.032. Epub 2018 May 23.


Background: Studying the effects of anaesthetic drugs on the processing of semantic stimuli could yield insights into how brain functions change in the transition from wakefulness to unresponsiveness. Here, we explored the N400 event-related potential during dexmedetomidine- and propofol-induced unresponsiveness.

Methods: Forty-seven healthy subjects were randomised to receive either dexmedetomidine (n=23) or propofol (n=24) in this open-label parallel-group study. Loss of responsiveness was achieved by stepwise increments of pseudo-steady-state plasma concentrations, and presumed loss of consciousness was induced using 1.5 times the concentration required for loss of responsiveness. Pre-recorded spoken sentences ending either with an expected (congruous) or an unexpected (incongruous) word were presented during unresponsiveness. The resulting electroencephalogram data were analysed for the presence of the N400 component, and for the N400 effect defined as the difference between the N400 components elicited by congruous and incongruous stimuli, in the time window 300-600 ms post-stimulus. Recognition of the presented stimuli was tested after recovery of responsiveness.

Results: The N400 effect was not observed during dexmedetomidine- or propofol-induced unresponsiveness. The N400 component, however, persisted during dexmedetomidine administration. The N400 component elicited by congruous stimuli during unresponsiveness in the dexmedetomidine group resembled the large component evoked by incongruous stimuli at the awake baseline. After recovery, no recognition of the stimuli heard during unresponsiveness occurred.

Conclusions: Dexmedetomidine and propofol disrupt the discrimination of congruous and incongruous spoken sentences, and recognition memory at loss of responsiveness. However, the processing of words is partially preserved during dexmedetomidine-induced unresponsiveness.

Clinical trial registration: NCT01889004.

Keywords: N400 evoked potential; dexmedetomidine; event-related potentials; propofol; semantics.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Deep Sedation / psychology*
  • Dexmedetomidine / blood
  • Dexmedetomidine / pharmacology*
  • Discrimination, Psychological / drug effects
  • Electroencephalography / drug effects
  • Evoked Potentials / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / blood
  • Hypnotics and Sedatives / pharmacology*
  • Male
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Perception / drug effects*
  • Propofol / pharmacology
  • Psychomotor Performance / drug effects
  • Recognition, Psychology / drug effects
  • Young Adult


  • Hypnotics and Sedatives
  • Dexmedetomidine
  • Propofol

Associated data

  • ClinicalTrials.gov/NCT01889004