Same neurons at work in sleep and under anesthesia
Anesthesiologists aren’t totally lying when they say they’re going to put you to sleep. Some anesthetics directly tap into sleep-promoting neurons in the brain, a study in mice reveals.
The results may help clarify how drugs that have been used around the world for decades actually put someone under. “It’s kind of shocking that after 170 years, we still don’t understand why they work,” says study coauthor Max Kelz of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
Most neurons in the brain appear to be calmed by anesthetics, says neuropharmacologist and anesthesiologist Hugh Hemmings Jr. of Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. But the new results, published online October 25 in Current Biology, show that two common anesthetics actually stimulate sleep-inducing neurons. “It’s unusual for neurons to be excited by anesthetics,” Hemmings says.
In the study, Kelz, Jason Moore, also of the University of Pennsylvania, and colleagues studied the effects of the anesthetics isoflurane and halothane. Mice given the drugs soon became sleepy, as expected. Along with this drowsiness came a jump in nerve cell activity in a part of the brain’s hypothalamus called the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus, or VLPO.