Anesthesiologists often tell patients they’re going to put them to sleep for their surgery. But general anesthesia is not sleep.

It’s a drug-induced, reversible coma that bears a remarkable physiological resemblance to death, as Emery Brown describes it. But putting it that way isn’t very comforting to patients.

Yet a deeper neurological understanding of what being under general anesthesia means points to the potential for new therapies for a range of conditions, said Brown, the Edward Hood Taplin Professor of Medical Engineering and Professor of Computational Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. If doctors can put you into a coma and then pull you out of it, can they learn to reverse a disease- or trauma-induced coma? Can they manipulate brain function to alleviate depression?

Brown, who is also the Warren M. Zapol Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, will discuss the ongoing neurological study of anesthetic drugs in a talk titled “Deciphering the Dynamics of the Unconscious Brain Under General Anesthesia,” the final installment of the 2020-2021 Maury Strauss Distinguished Public Lecture Series. Brown’s lecture, hosted by the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, will be presented virtually via Zoom at 5:30 p.m. on May 6. Attendees should register online in advance.

“Dr. Brown’s integration of his work as an anesthesiologist and as a statistician has yielded some intriguing new insights into what happens in the human brain while under general anesthesia,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and Virginia Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology. “His innovative research has illuminated an improved understanding of how anesthetic drugs work that could provide new opportunities to improve anesthesia and to better understand biology of consciousness.”

While anesthesia has been administered in the United States for about 170 years, it’s still considered mysterious, Brown said in a 2015 TED Talk.

While scientists have observed the effects of anesthesia on the brain via electroencephalographic recording and have some fundamental understanding of the molecular pharmacology of the receptors that interact with anesthetic agents, there is still much to learn about the mechanisms of anesthesia induction and maintenance. For example, Brown has developed algorithms to better analyze the rhythmic oscillations in electrical signaling among networks of interconnected neurons in the brain that signal the state of the brain’s alertness or awareness.

His studies found that some of these waves were highly synchronized in the frontal part of the brain. They also richocheted between the thalamus and the cortex, creating inhibition and making it difficult to be conscious.

Now, Brown said in the TED Talk, “We can change the way we dose our drugs and we can have a more scientifically based approach to thinking about how we manage anesthesia.”

Scientists can further explore how this deeper understanding of anesthetic processes could lead to therapies for coma, depression, sleep disorders, or chronic pain, he added.

Brown received his Bachelor of Arts in applied mathematics from Harvard College, his master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University, and his medical degree from Harvard Medical School.

Brown is an elected member of the National Academy of Medicine, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Engineering. He has been a member of the National Institutes of Health BRAIN Initiative Working Group, and is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors.

Brown has won the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, the National Institute of Statistical Sciences Sacks Award, the American Society of Anesthesiologists Excellence in Research Award, the Dickson Prize in Science, and the Swartz Prize for Theoretical and Computational Neuroscience.

To watch Brown’s virtual lecture and submit questions, register online via the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute website to receive access to the Zoom link, or watch the live webcast.

The series of free public lectures is named for Maury Strauss, a Roanoke businessman and longtime community benefactor who recognizes the value of bringing thought leaders and innovators in science, medicine, and health to share their work and vision with the Roanoke community.

Written by Matt Chittum