Making anaesthesia safer by tracking brain activity

Watching the waves

AROUND 1936 three neurologists at Harvard Medical School raided the medicine cabinet, filling their boots with morphine, barbiturates, ethers and even cobra venom. They applied those substances to (apparently) willing volunteers and cemented primitive electrodes to their scalps and earlobes. They also collared a drunk and wired him up. With pen and paper, they then recorded how the electrical signals in their volunteers’ brains changed as the drugs began to take hold.

This kind of gonzo science might meet a touch of resistance from the institutional review board if proposed today, but the work of Gibbs, Gibbs and Lennox still stands. The trio showed, without meaning to, that sedatives lower the activity of the brain through several clear stages, and that each stage is observable in that organ’s electrical readings. Their results have been refined over the years, of course, to the extent that Emery Brown, a successor of theirs at Harvard,…Continue reading


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