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Comparing Coma and Anesthesia

A three year study examining similarities and differences between sleep, anesthesia and coma was published in last week’s New England Journal of Medicine  Researchers found that  general anesthesia is more like a reversible drug-induced coma that a deep sleep as it is often referred to by anesthesiologists. The results may lead to a better understanding of the comatose state and more effective anesthetic agents.

According to study author, Dr. Nicholas Schiff, an authority on coma recovery, "General anesthesia is pharmacological coma, not sleep." While doctors and patients commonly describe general anesthesia as going to sleep, there are significant differences between the states, with only a bit of overlap between the deepest states of sleep and the very lightest phases of anesthesia. The study authors also state that while sleeping usually involves moving through a series of phases, in general anesthesia, patients are typically taken to a specific phase or state and kept there during the surgery. This phase most closely resembles a coma.

Hopefully this work will also lead to better monitoring tools and diagnostics to assess what stage of recovery a person with a coma is in, and it could be used to develop new strategies to help doctors bring patients back to consciousness.

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