BOSTON (CBS) - General anesthesia is a wonderful thing, but it comes with risks, including lasting effects on the aging brain. As our population ages, and more and more seniors will be undergoing surgery, those brain effects could become a public health problem.
Now researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are trying to find a way to reverse the effects of general anesthesia faster, and they seem to be on to something.
"We're trying to develop better way to wake people up from anesthesia," says Dr. Ken Solt, an anesthesiologist and researcher at Mass. General Hospital. He says for older patients who undergo general anesthesia, it can sometimes take weeks to months for their brains to recover, long after the anesthesia has worn off.
"Often patients may report that their memory isn't quite what is was," he says. "They're not as sharp. They can't remember something. They can't think of something."
And children can have a tough time as well. 20-30% of kids who undergo general anesthesia develop delirium. "They are completely disoriented and pulling out IVs and attacking people," says Dr. Solt, "Even when their parents are there."
So doctors often have to put them back under in order to gain control, which is obviously not ideal.
Dr. Solt and his team have found that when rats are given methylphenidate, commonly known as the ADHD drug Ritalin, they wake up, and move around, even if they're still receiving the anesthesia. Now they want to figure out if the rats can think clearly as well. If they can, they may have discovered a way to wake patients up while preventing the unwanted side effects on the brain.
"Perhaps by giving Ritalin," Dr. Solt explains, "We can reverse the state of anesthesia when we want to and have control of this wake-up process, and because it's Ritalin which also works for ADHD, maybe it can help with cognitive function and delirium in children."
Dr. Solt has received approval from the FDA and Mass. General to begin recruiting human patients for a clinical trial. He also says, and this is just speculation, that perhaps they could use their research to help restore consciousness in people who are comatose.
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