In the United States, nearly 60,000 patients per day receive general anesthesia for surgery.1 General anesthesia is a drug-induced, reversible condition that includes specific behavioral and physiological traits — unconsciousness, amnesia, analgesia, and akinesia — with concomitant stability of the autonomic, cardiovascular, respiratory, and thermoregulatory systems.2 General anesthesia produces distinct patterns on the electroencephalogram (EEG), the most common of which is a progressive increase in low-frequency, high-amplitude activity as the level of general anesthesia deepens3,4 (Figure 1Figure 1Electroencephalographic (EEG) Patterns during the Awake State, General Anesthesia, and Sleep.). How anesthetic drugs induce and maintain the behavioral states of general anesthesia is an important question in medicine and neuroscience.6 Substantial insights can be gained by considering the relationship of general anesthesia to sleep and to coma. Humans spend approximately one third of their lives asleep. Sleep, a state of decreased arousal that is actively generated by nuclei in the hypothalamus, brain stem, and basal forebrain, is crucial for the maintenance of health.7,8 Normal human sleep cycles between two states — rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep — at approximately 90-minute intervals. REM sleep is characterized by rapid eye movements, dreaming, irregularities of respiration and heart rate, penile and clitoral erection, and airway and skeletal-muscle hypotonia.7 In REM sleep, the EEG shows active high-frequency, low-amplitude rhythms (Figure 1). Non-REM sleep has three distinct EEG stages, with higher-amplitude, lower-frequency rhythms accompanied by waxing and waning muscle tone, decreased body temperature, and decreased heart rate.
Coma is a state of profound unresponsiveness, usually the result of a severe brain injury.9 Comatose patients typically lie with eyes closed and cannot be roused to respond appropriately to vigorous stimulation. A comatose patient may grimace, move limbs, and have stereotypical withdrawal responses to painful stimuli yet make no localizing responses or discrete defensive movements. As the coma deepens, the patient's responsiveness even to painful stimuli may diminish or disappear. Although the patterns of EEG activity observed in comatose patients depend on the extent of the brain injury, they frequently resemble the high–amplitude, low-frequency activity seen in patients under general anesthesia10 (Figure 1). General anesthesia is, in fact, a reversible drug-induced coma. Nevertheless, anesthesiologists refer to it as “sleep” to avoid disquieting patients. Unfortunately, anesthesiologists also use the word “sleep” in technical descriptions to refer to unconsciousness induced by anesthetic drugs.11 (For a glossary of terms commonly used in the field of anesthesiology, see the Supplementary Appendix, available with the full text of this article at NEJM.org.)
This review discusses the clinical and neurophysiological features of general anesthesia and their relationships to sleep and coma, focusing on the neural mechanisms of unconsciousness induced by selected intravenous anesthetic drugs