New insight into how anesthesia works

14 November 2014

Surgeons consider anesthesia to be a medical blessing, but very little is known about how it was able to interact with the brain, in order to block pain and induce a memory-free state.

Thinking has been divided into two camps: one that believes anesthetics primarily act on the cell membrane (the lipid bilayer) of nerve cells, while the other says the membrane proteins themselves are altered directly by anesthetics.

A new study has supported the latter. The team from Weill Cornell Medical College found it is the proteins that are affected by anesthesia as this enables the cell-to-cell communication to be inhibited when anesthetics are applied.

This is the first demonstration that anesthetics alter the function of relevant ion channels without altering properties of the cell membranes, according to the study's lead investigator, Dr Hugh Hemmings, Jr, professor and chair of anesthesiology at Weill Cornell.

Along with Dr Olaf S. Andersen, a lipid bilayer expert and professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell, he developed methods to measure the effects of drugs and other molecules on membranes.

Posted by Philip Briggs​


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