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Debunked: A Century-Old Theory of How Anesthesia Works

  • Every year, millions of Americans are able to experience a painless surgery with the help of anesthesia, even though most don’t really know how anesthesia works. Each day, Steel City Anesthesia helps administer anesthesia to Ambulatory Surgery Centers, and hospitals and doctors’ offices across Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia. Although it is extremely common and vital to the world of medicine, there is constant research to find out exactly how anesthesia works. The most common theory is that anesthetics block neural function by disrupting fat molecules in the cell membranes. However, new research from a study done by Weill Cornell Medicine may have debunked a century-old theory of how anesthesia works. Co-researcher Dr. Hugh Hemmings, chair of the Department of Anesthesiology at Weill Cornell Medicine, discusses the new findings saying they have debunked a century-old theory of how anesthesia works and, “Finally have proof that these anesthetics must have a direct effect on integral membrane proteins – and not an indirect effect on proteins through the lipid bilayer – to put patients in a coma-like state, allowing them to undergo painful procedures with no memory or pain.” This new evidence supports the idea that anesthesia does not affect the lipid bilayer, which is the part of the cell membrane that is made up of fat. The new findings show rather than interacting indirectly through the membrane itself, anesthetics interact directly with membrane proteins, which inhibit electrical communications between neurons, which triggers unconsciousness. Researchers in this study reconstructed a model cell surrounded by thin membrane in order to determine the biological mechanism behind anesthesia. Thirteen different anesthetic agents were tested using a technique developed by by Dr. Olaf Andersen, a professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Dr. Helgi Ingólfsson, Ph.D. The results showed that none of the anesthetics tested affected the lipid bilayer properties. “That was a very surprising result,” said Dr. Andersen. “When we started conducting the experiments I was convinced we would see some effect on the bilayer. The fact that the results are as clean as they are was to me really amazing.” While there is still more research to be done on this topic, these results are groundbreaking in the world of anesthesia. Researchers are always hoping to learn more, and this study may have just “debunked” a century old theory of how anesthesia works. As we focus on patient care and achieving industry leading satisfaction ratings,  having a better understanding of the mechanisms behind anesthesia can lead to the development of new anesthetic agents with less undesirable side effects.

    15 Mar
    15 Mar
  • Accurately assessing pain levels of a patient is always a challenge, and when the person is unable to communicate to describe the pain they are in, the challenge becomes even greater. Medasense Biometrics, Ltd. recently announced they have developed a pain monitoring device, the PMD200. This new device was created to help physicians in assessing pain levels of an individual when the patient is unable to communicate. This will assist anesthesia teams in providing the correct amount of pain-relief medicine based on accurately assessing pain levels of the patient. This device is based on the NOL technology, which quantifies an individual’s psychological response to pain. The PMD200 is a very easy to use system, which includes a finger probe that records psychological signals from four different sensors. The device also records dozens of pain-related psychological parameters. The data is then analyzed and converted into the Nociception Level index. In this index, 0 = no pain and 100 = extreme pain. This system will allow physicians to better manage pain treatments and help them avoid using too much or too little pain medicine. Too much pain medicine during a procedure can cause a patient to suffer from nausea, vomiting, respiratory depression, constipation, and hyperalgesia once they regain consciousness. Professor Albert Dahan, MD. PhD. from the Department of Anaesthesiology at Leiden University Medical Center in the Netherlands said, “We have been studying the PMD device for a number of years now, and I believe that the NOL index may allow for more balanced anesthesia, as for the first time we are able to titrate analgesic medication to patients’ needs. In the upcoming weeks, the LUMC will be adding PMD200 devices into the operating rooms. In the future, I hope to see the NOL index integrated into other monitors as it provides significant decision support information and can potentially positively impact patient outcomes.” The device is currently being distributed throughout Europe for use in operating rooms and in critical care units. The company also hopes to broaden the use of the NOL index and is currently researching other forms of pain such as chronic back pain. This device is a breakthrough in accurately assessing pain levels of a patient and can be a great asset to anesthesia teams in the future.

    14 Feb
    14 Feb
  • The thought of heading to the doctor for a procedure that requires local anesthesia probably doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. However, imagine if you were going to feel everything that was happening during the procedure. Well for some, this horrible nightmare is a reality. In very rare cases, some individuals have a resistance to local anesthesia, and no matter the amount received, they can still feel pain. In a report from the BBC, a woman named Lori Lemon, discusses how since she was young she has always had to go to the dentist and other doctors expecting to endure pain. Even after crying out during dental procedures, doctors never took Lori seriously. She describes a visit to the dentist as a young child when her condition first became apparent, “They started working on me and I, being obedient, I just raised my hand and let ’em know, ‘I can feel this’,” she says. Another injection still proved that she had a resistance to local anesthesia. “Finally I just kind of screamed and was in tears the whole time.” When she recently visited the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville for a procedure to remove a lipoma from her elbow, an anesthesiologist noticed that none of their methods were working and knew something had to be wrong. Dr. Steven Clendenen, the anesthesiologist at the clinic, said “The nerves were flooded with local anaesthetic and at the time it didn’t work.” Clendenen decided to research this issue further and found that while there were other cases of this same problem, there was hardly any answers as to why patients had a resistance to local anesthesia. After finding out Lemon’s mother and maternal half-sister also suffer from a similar type of resistance to local anesthesia, he decided to do a genetic study on the family. Doctors discovered a genetic defect which was directly related to a specific sodium channel in the body, sodium 1.5. “We looked at the genetics of that and went, ‘wow’ – [her mother] had the same gene defect,” explains Clendenen. This genetic mutation is significant due to the theory that local anesthetics are successful due to the disruption of sodium channels. Since sodium 1.5 channels have mostly been studied in heart tissue, not the peripheral nerves where local anaesthetic is applied, there is still a lot of research that needs to be done. “This is really important to get that out there,” said Clendenen. “People don’t believe [these patients] and it’s very frustrating. Even some of my colleagues that I’ve talked to say, ‘I don’t believe it’.” For patients like Lori Lemon, however, this has put light on the issue and gives them some relief knowing there is work being done to figure out this problem. If you or a loved one is preparing for a procedure, click here to visit our anesthesia information page to learn more.  

    13 Jan
    13 Jan
  • There is often still concern about the later effects anesthesia may have on a person, especially anesthesia on toddlers. There have been numerous small studies done analyzing the effects, if any, that may appear later in a patient’s life. Results of a recent study in Sweden, the largest of its kind, suggest anesthesia on toddlers carries no long term risks.  Patients who have anesthesia before age 4 show little risks later in life, especially for intelligence. Overview of Anesthesia on Toddlers Study The results of this study were based on research done on 200,000 Swedish teenagers. 33,500 of these teenagers had been exposed to anesthesia before the age of 4 and nearly 160,000 of the teenagers had never been exposed to anesthesia. The school grades of the teenagers at age 16 were on average less than a half a percent lower in teenagers who had undergone a childhood surgery than the teens who had not had surgery. Among teenagers that had two or more surgeries, grades were less than two percent lower. IQ tests were also given to boys in the study who were 18 years of age. IQ scores were nearly the same among all tested. The leader of this study, Dr. Pia Glatz from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute, as well as other researches mentioned that other factors, a Mother’s education level for example, pose more of a risk on intelligence than administering anesthesia on toddlers. Among those studied, the most common surgeries the teenagers had received as children were hernia repairs, abdominal procedures, and ear, nose, or throat operations. These surgeries likely caused the children to be under anesthesia for about an hour or less. Researchers involved in the study as well as other physicians find the results of this study reassuring, and believe parents need to consider the harm of postponing surgery more than future risks for intelligence and academics later in life.  A journal editorial says the study is  “reassuring for children, parents and caregivers and puts the issue of anesthetic-related neurotoxicity and the developing brain into perspective.” While this study is still ongoing, it can put parents and caregivers at ease knowing that this study shows anesthesia on toddlers carries no long term risks. If you or someone you know wants to learn more about anesthesia before a procedure, take a look at our surgery patient FAQ page.

    19 Dec
    19 Dec
  • It is pretty fair to say that no one really enjoys getting a cavity filled or going under anesthesia because of a painful surgery, it’s just something we have to do. Although it isn’t fun for anyone, redheads may dread a trip to the dentist’s office a bit more than the average person, and for good reason. Over the years, many have said that a patient’s natural hair color may have an impact on anesthesia efforts. But do redheads really require more anesthesia? Recent studies have been done that show people with naturally red hair often require a higher dosage of anesthesia, and are sometimes resistant to pain blockers, such as novocaine, than their brunette or blonde counterparts. Making up only 1-2% of the population worldwide, the genetics of a redhead are what makes them such a rarity. Researchers believe a mutation of the gene that causes people to have red hair and fair skin, also has an effect on a person’s sensitivity to pain. The Mc1R gene, which affects hair color, produces melanin in people with blond, black, or brown hair, but a mutation causes it to produce pheomelanin in redheads. This gene is a part of a family of receptors in the brain that include pain receptors, which may be why it affects a redheads tolerance of pain. Dr. Daniel I. Sessler, an anesthesiologist and chairman of the department of outcomes research at the Cleveland Clinic, said he started studying hair color after hearing many colleagues discuss redheads needing more anesthesia than patients with different hair colors. “The reason we studied redheads in the beginning, it was essentially an urban legend in the anesthesia community saying redheads were difficult to anesthetize,” Dr. Sessler said. “This was so intriguing we went ahead and studied it. Redheads really do require more anesthesia, and by a clinically important amount.” Researchers believe patients with red hair require about 20% more general anesthesia than the average person, which proves that redheads being harder to anesthetize was not just a myth in the medical community. Another study in 2005, proved that redheads are more resistant to the effects of local anesthesia, such as the numbing drugs that are often used by dentists. It is possible that people with dark skin, eyes, and hair may produce more melanin than normal and in turn will also require more anesthesia. So the next time you hear your redheaded friend complaining about a routine trip to the dentist, you’ll know why!

    15 Oct
    15 Oct
  • General anesthesia is very commonly used to induce unconsciousness in patients undergoing surgery. Each year millions of people in the United States are required to receive anesthesia, and there is no single right amount for every patient. Factors such as weight, age, gender, illness, and medications all play a role in determining just how much anesthesia each person needs. A patient’s heart rate and rhythm, breathing rate, blood pressure, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels are also monitored so the amount of anesthesia can be adjusted as needed. A recent study from the University of Cambridge, published in PLOS Computational Biology, may have identified a better way to calculate the amount of anesthesia one may need. A group of 20 volunteers were involved in this study to discover how brainwaves can identify patient anesthesia needs. The Brain Signals and Anesthesia As different areas of the brain communicate with each other they give off signals that can indicate a person’s level of consciousness. In the study, researchers gave a steadily increasing dosage of propofol to the group of healthy volunteers (9 male, 11 female). Their brain activity was monitored using an electroencephalogram (EEG). While receiving the propofol, the individuals were asking to perform a simple task where they would hit one button after hearing a “ping” and a different button after hearing a “pong”. All of the people involved in this study had the same limited amount of propofol and once that limit was hit some were unconscious while others were still awake and able to continue performing the task. Researchers studied EEG results and found a very clear difference between that brain activity of those who were affected by that amount of anesthetic and those who were still able to perform the task. EEG readings showed that volunteers with more alpha wave activity prior to receiving the anesthesia required more propofol to put them under. Researchers said “These findings could lead to more accurate drug titration and brain state monitoring during anesthesia,”. Dr Tristan Bekinschtein, senior author from the Department of Psychology, adds: “EEG machines are commonplace in hospitals and relatively inexpensive. With some engineering and further testing, we expect they could be adapted to help doctors optimise the amount of drug an individual needs to receive to become unconscious without increasing their risk of complications.” Although this is a relatively new study, many agree that with more testing and research, monitoring brainwave activity prior to administering anesthesia may be a useful, non-invasive way of measuring the dosage needed for each unique patient.

    01 Feb
    01 Feb