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Disconnecting Consciousness: Is There a Common Anesthetic End Point?

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A quest for a systems-level neuroscientific basis of anesthetic-induced loss and return of consciousness has been in the forefront of research for the past 2 decades. Recent advances toward the discovery of underlying mechanisms have been achieved using experimental electrophysiology, multichannel electroencephalography, magnetoencephalography, and functional magnetic resonance imaging. By the careful dosing of various volatile and IV anesthetic agents to the level of behavioral unresponsiveness, both specific and common changes in functional and effective connectivity across large-scale brain networks have been discovered and interpreted in the context of how the synthesis of neural information might be affected during anesthesia. The results of most investigations to date converge toward the conclusion that a common neural correlate of anesthetic-induced unresponsiveness is a consistent depression or functional disconnection of lateral frontoparietal networks, which are thought to be critical for consciousness of the environment. A reduction in the repertoire of brain states may contribute to the anesthetic disruption of large-scale information integration leading to unconsciousness. In future investigations, a systematic delineation of connectivity changes with multiple anesthetics using the same experimental design, and the same analytical method will be desirable. The critical neural events that account for the transition between responsive and unresponsive states should be assessed at similar anesthetic doses just below and above the loss or return of responsiveness. There will also be a need to identify a robust, sensitive, and reliable measure of information transfer. Ultimately, finding a behavior-independent measure of subjective experience that can track covert cognition in unresponsive subjects and a delineation of causal factors versus correlated events will be essential to understand the neuronal basis of human consciousness and unconsciousness.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: November 1, 2016

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