For the first time, researchers were able to observe, in extra-fine detail, how neurons behave as consciousness shuts down.
WHEN YOU ARE awake, your neurons talk to each other by tuning into the same electrical impulse frequencies. One set might be operating in unison at 10 hertz, while another might synchronize at 30 hertz. When you are under anesthesia, this complicated hubbub collapses into a more uniform hum. The neurons are still firing, but the signal loses its complexity.
A better understanding of how this works could make surgery safer, but many anesthesiologists don’t use an EEG to monitor their patients. That bugs Emery Brown, who does monitor his patients’ brain patterns when they are under. “Most anesthesiologists don’t think about it from a neuroscience standpoint,” says Brown, who is a professor of computational neuroscience at MIT and of anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, as well as a practicing anesthesiologist. For the past decade, he has studied what happens to brains when their owners are unconscious. He wants to know more about how anesthetics work, and to track fine-grain signatures of how neurons behave when patients are under. He wants to be able to say: “Here’s what’s happening. It’s not a black box.”