Class blog for sharing and commenting on current events in biology.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dangers of Anesthesia

Storrs, Carina. "The Hidden Dangers of Going Under." Scientific American Global. Scientific American, 18 Mar. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. <>.

     In hospitals across the world, people undergoing surgery use anesthesia to make surgery painless and relatively easy. Anesthesia has been in use since 1846, when ether was first used during surgery to make the procedure nearly painless. However, during the hundred and sixty eight year history anesthesia, few conclusive studies have been conducted regarding common reports of dementia, hallucinations, and amnesia that come up after surgery. Those who have investigated in the past have usually chalked up the incidents to the stress of surgery releasing underlying dementia or brain defects. However, a set of new studies conducted by Johns Hopkins, the University of Massachusetts, and a Hong Kong hospital, among others, suggest that in fact the anesthesia may be responsible for the issues, which are commonly known as postoperative delirium. Though the results are not able to show how anesthesia may cause delirium - a fact complicated by the fact that scientists do not even fully understand how general anesthesia works to induce unconsciousness - they do bring to light a troubling issue for those who are planning on undergoing surgery or have in the past. Typically the side effects show up while patients are undergoing surgery with general anesthesia, which is designed to put a patient into an unconscious state, however regional anesthesia, which is designed to numb pain coming from a specific part of the body, can also cause the same effects when it reduces electrical activity in the brain enough to qualify as general anesthesia. This drop in brain activity in those undergoing surgery with regional anesthesia happened in eighty seven percent of cases during another study. A doctor at Johns Hopkins, Frederick Sieber, suspects that these results may have been caused by an overdose of regional anesthesia. Additionally, age appears to be a factor. The article states that approximately fifty percent of those sixty or older felt the side effects of anesthesia, including severe disorientation and postoperative delirium, and that patients who developed delirium took far longer - up to a full year - to regain their mental abilities in memory and attention tests after undergoing surgery. Researchers believe that proteins that anesthetic drugs target are less common on the surface of neurons of patients over sixty.

     These findings raise serious questions about the safety of using anesthesia and about how hospitals can proceed to minimize the incidence of these newfound side effects. Already doctors at Johns Hopkins are beginning to talk to elderly and other at-risk patients while the patients are undergoing surgery using regional anesthesia, which works to numb a specific part or parts of a patient's body. Other hospitals are also ensuring that patients are well hydrated and nourished and avoiding activities or medications that could alter brain activity. That hospitals are already changing policies to account for this new research shows how important this new research is. These new side effects may even prompt further research into how exactly general anesthesia works, perhaps allowing scientists to create better anesthesias without these potentially dangerous side effects.

     The article was able to effectively introduce me to the history of anesthesia, postoperative delirium, and hospitals' preliminary responses to the data. It also backed up its claims with several separate new studies that have come to similar conclusions regarding anesthesia's effects on patients. However, I feel that the article could have more effectively proven its point with more quotes from experts. The article included only two quotes from experts in anesthesiology, and both were relatively vague. Additionally, the article only mentioned studies conducted on the elderly. Though the study stated that the effects surfaced primarily in those over sixty, they did not quote any studies involving patients under sixty to back up their claims. Overall, the article was interesting and got me interested in new research and the problems that anesthesia causes.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this review. It was interesting and taught me a large number of facts that I did not know. Something I think Chris did very well was how he wrote the article. It was very clear and concise and kept me engaged throughout. Another thing that I think Chris did well is that in his critique, he listed some specific information that he believed the article was lacking. Finally, I think Chris did a really good job of explaining the background of anesthesia and how it has developed from its beginning to today.

    Although Chris included a ton of fascinating facts in his article, something I would have liked to see more of was statistics. He only included statistics about elderly people, but I still have some questions such as: what percent of people that undergo surgery with anesthesia get these brain problems afterwards? Also, I thought that Chris could have included more of an in-depth analysis of why this topic is so important in today’s world.

    Overall, I was very impressed by the facts in this review and also by how well it was written! I commend Chris for his extensive vocabulary, which made the review sound very professional. The most interesting thing that I learned from this review is that scientists still know very little about why anesthetics induce unconsciousness. I think that if something is used in hospitals for something as important as surgery and operations, the science behind it should be very clear and well known! Altogether, I was very impressed with this review, and it has made me interested in the topic.

  2. So thats why I couldn't sleep for a week after surgery. I have gone under twice for different reasons and both times I was unable to sleep for a while. I think that Chris chose an interesting topic, and he explained the topic very well. Chris introduced many, very interesting topics, and was clear on how they affect people.
    The only critique I have for the report is that there were only a few statistics. I would have liked to see how many people were tested, how many were affected, and the ages of people studies. This only came up once, with the statistic about the elderly people.
    Overall, this was a great report with many interesting facts. Chris used extensive amounts of facts to make the report interesting and credible. He also used a range of vocabulary to make the report sound all fancy. He taught me many things about the effects of anesthesia and how detrimental it really is. Great job Chris!

  3. Is it not shocking that we routinely use a drug that affects the brain, when we don't even know exactly how it works? Of course without anesthesia surgeries would be practically impossible, so we are grateful for the drugs that allow us to painlessly endure procedures that otherwise be unbearable. I find it a bit appalling though that with over a century of use, and countless reports of hallucinations, dementia, and loss of mental acuity, scientists and doctors just brushed it off as "stress of surgery." I am so glad that this is finally getting looked into seriously.

    Chris you chose an excellent article and gave a great summary. Part of what made the article so compelling was its depth. It did not just cite or summarize one scientific study, but was a review of many in this area of research. You would perhaps benefit your readers more to do likewise and give a brief overview of each study and its key findings. I think this would address the point Mia and Alex made of incorporating more statistics.

    Still, you conveying the overall gist of the article and many of the key points and studies. I just think it might have been worth it to actually delineate each one.

    This article is especially relevant, because if you haven't "been under" as Alex has, it is almost guaranteed that all of us will undergo some for anesthesia and surgery at some point in our life, if we live long enough!