Suppressing the Mind

Part of the series Contemporary Clinical Neuroscience pp 33-80


A Neurochemical Perspective on States of Consciousness

  • Christopher J. WatsonAffiliated withDepartment of Anesthesiology, University of Michigan Email author 
  • , Helen A. BaghdoyanAffiliated withDepartment of Anesthesiology, University of Michigan
  • , Ralph LydicAffiliated withDepartment of Anesthesiology, University of Michigan

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The foundation of anesthesia rests upon discoveries made by chemists. This is illustrated by Joseph Preistly’s and Humphrey Davy’s research on nitrous oxide; Paracelsus’ work with ether; the studies of chemists Eugène Soubeiran, Justus von Liebig, Samual Gutherie, and Jean-Baptiste Dumas with chloroform; and more recently Paul Janssen’s development of fentanyl. Anesthetics are synthetic compounds that exert effects on one or more endogenous neurochemical systems to produce a behavioral state characterized by traits that include unconsciousness, amnesia, and analgesia. The mechanisms by which anesthetics cause the loss of consciousness (hypnosis) are not known, but there is compelling evidence that anesthetics alter the endogenous neurochemical systems that regulate sleep and wakefulness (Keifer et al. 1994; Lydic 1996; Vanini et al. 2008). Advances in analytical chemistry now make it possible to begin a systematic characterization of the endogenous molecules that regulate states of consciousness such as sleep and anesthesia. This chapter provides a brief overview of sleep neurobiology and its unique relevance for efforts to understand the neurochemical mechanisms of anesthesia. Readers are referred elsewhere for detailed reviews on sleep (Lydic and Biebuyck 1994; España and Scammell 2004; Steriade and McCarley 2005; Datta and MacLean 2007; McCarley 2007; Monti, Pandi-Perumal, and Sinton 2008).


Sleep anesthesia neurochemistry acetylcholine GABA adenosine neuropeptide