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    Cooling Brain May Prevent Cell Death Due to Anesthesia Exposure

    By Jennifer Huddleston, staff writer     

    A study led by researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri, suggests that cooling the brain prior to anesthesia exposure may prevent neuroapoptosis (the death of nerve cells) and permanent damage to the developing brain.

    Researchers led by John W. Olney, M.D., previously found that a significant amount of brain cells were killed when infant rodents were exposed to alcohol, anesthetics or anticonvulsants. The new research suggests that these effects could be prevented by cooling the brain prior to anesthesia exposure.

    “Cooling the brain seems to be quite effective in suppressing nerve cell death after an infant animal has been exposed to an anesthetic drug,” Olney said. “We don’t yet know whether this cooling only temporarily suppresses or whether it permanently prevents this brain damage from occurring. We’re currently working to clarify that.”[1]

    Olney’s previous research found that a dose of anesthetics small enough to lightly anesthetize an infant mouse for just one hour was enough to induce cell death.

    “It has been widely assumed that the benefits of anesthesia can be achieved without adverse consequences,” Olney said. “But that assumption has been called into question in recent years by work from our laboratory and others around the world.”[2]

    Olney and his team of researchers are exploring how cooling the brain affects the healthy low-level cell death that naturally occurs in developing brains.

    “Some cells fail to make the normal connections that they are supposed to make in order to become integrated into a neural network,” Olney said. “It’s necessary for those cells to die and to be removed from the brain. Cooling the brain also suppresses that process.”[3]

    Olney’s team is hoping to prove that cooling the brain will only delay this healthy neuroapoptosis but will permanently prevent the negative effects of increased cell death caused by anesthetics. Doing so could help prevent developmental problems in young children by enabling surgeons to determine the safest time to perform surgery.[4]

    Because various parts of the brain develop at different times, the brain’s developmental stage at the time of anesthetic exposure can affect the type of repercussions the patient may experience later.

    “We believe there are certain early periods when the damage is not only more likely to be severe, but it’s also likely to be more widespread throughout different regions of the brain,” Olney said. “Naturally, if more of the brain is involved and damage to those regions is more severe, it’s going to cause more pronounced neural and cognitive consequences.”[5]

    Previous research conducted by Olney also suggests that lithium may protect the brain from anesthesia-related damage.

    Olney’s findings were presented at Neuroscience 2008, the 38th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, in November 2008.



    [1] Washington University School of Medicine. “Cooling the Brain Prevents Cell Death in Young Mice Exposed to Anesthesia.” ScienceDaily. Nov. 24, 2008.
    [2]  Ibid.
    [3]  Ibid.
    [4] Kandel, Seth. “Cool Brains Prevail in Study of Effects of Anesthesia.” Anesthesiology News, Volume 35:01. January 2009.
    [5] Washington University School of Medicine. “Cooling the Brain Prevents Cell Death in Young Mice Exposed to Anesthesia.” ScienceDaily. Nov. 24, 2008.



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