Since the mid-19th century, surgeons and their grateful patients have made use of ether and other general anesthetics. Yet exactly how these compounds produce a painfree, unconscious state remains mysterious. Now, scientists chipping away at the anatomical details have discovered that two of today's most common general anesthetics produce their sedative effects by triggering the brain's sleep circuits.
Further research on the brain circuits affected by these anesthetics may lead to improved agents that generate an even more natural sleeplike state, say the biologists, who chronicle their research in an upcoming Nature Neuroscience.
"The notion that anesthetics might somehow be recruiting a natural pathway that promotes sleep, as opposed to mucking up a pathway that keeps you awake," hasn't been considered seriously before, says study coauthor Nick P. Franks of the Imperial College School of Medicine in London.