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Same neurons at work in sleep and under anesthesia

Drugs boost activity in nerve cells that usually induce a slumber

Anesthesiologists aren’t totally lying when they say they’re going to put you to sleep. Some anesthetics directly tap into sleep-promoting neurons in the brain, a study in mice reveals.

The results may help clarify how drugs that have been used around the world for decades actually put someone under. “It’s kind of shocking that after 170 years, we still don’t understand why they work,” says study coauthor Max Kelz of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Most neurons in the brain appear to be calmed by anesthetics, says neuropharmacologist and anesthesiologist Hugh Hemmings Jr. of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. But the new results, published online October 25 in Current Biology, show that two common anesthetics actually stimulate sleep-inducing neurons. “It’s unusual for neurons to be excited by anesthetics,” Hemmings says.

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