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Understanding Anaesthesia

Story supplied by LU Press Office

Researchers from the Physics Department are spearheading a project, which has the potential to shed light on the mysteries of anaesthesia.

Anaesthesiology is a subtle and imperfect science that is not currently well understood. Without it most modern surgical procedures would be impossible but the mechanisms causing loss of consciousness are not clear. This can result in complications such as a patient regaining consciousness during an operation or, in the most extreme circumstances, death.

The Lancaster University-led BRACCIA project is exploring ways in which the brain's electrical activity varies with the depth of anaesthesia and how waves present in these electrical signals interact with heart and respiration rhythms.

Changes in these three signals, and how they interact with one another, can be used to provide a crucial insight into the changes taking place in the human body during anaesthesia.

The ultimate aim of the project - which is backed by a €1.42 million grant from the European Commission - is to develop the understanding needed to create a new, effective anaesthetic monitor which could be used in operating theatres to keep track of a patient's level of consciousness.

Medical Physicists at Lancaster University are co-coordinating an international team including physicists, biomedical engineers, information scientists, physiologists, neuroscientists and anaesthesiologists working within the Czech Republic, Germany, Norway, Slovenia and Switzerland as well as the UK.

More than 140 patients undergoing surgery will be monitored at both the Ulleval Hospital in Oslo and at the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Lancaster. The volunteers will have their brain, heart and respiratory signals monitored and recorded before during and after anaesthesia. This should give researchers important information about the progression from unconsciousness to consciousness.

The research will also bring new insights into relationships between brain, heart and breathing - exploring how they interact and which function is driving the others.

Data collected during these experiments will be monitored and interpreted at Lancaster University using some of the latest analysis techniques under development by other BRACCIA partners.

Project scientific coordinator Dr Aneta Stefanovska, of Lancaster University's Physics Department, on whose earlier research in Ljubljana the whole project is based, said: "This is ground breaking research using nonlinear dynamics to deepen our understanding of the body and how its systems interact. This new knowledge has a very clear application and we hope it could eventually be used to develop a failsafe system for measuring anaesthesia levels in patients. It would also enable us to explore the effects of anaesthetic drugs on consciousness."

Professor Peter McClintock, also of Lancaster University's Physics Department, said: "This is a very exciting project, and a wonderful note on which to introduce our new undergraduate degree schemes in Physics with Medical Physics."

Professor Andrew Smith of the Royal Lancaster Infirmary said: "'Unintentional awareness - that is, when anaesthetised patients are awake when they should be asleep - is an uncommon but potentially traumatic complication. There are a number of electronic monitors available to assist anaesthetists in trying to avoid this problem, but none is 100 per cent reliable. We hope that BRACCIA will help us shed light on how the brain's activity changes during anaesthesia and in the future this may go some way towards developing a more reliable monitor of depth of anaesthesia."

Thu 22 June 2006