(CBS) "Coma" is not a word you want to hear before going into surgery. So anesthesiologists use the word "sleep."
But according to new research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the reality may be more the former than the later.
"These findings show that general anesthesia is a reversible coma, and learning about the different ways we can safely place the brain into this state, with fewer side effects and risks, could be an important advance in general anesthesiology," said study co-author Dr. Emery Brown of Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard and MIT in a statement. "Also, in a scientific sense, monitoring brain function under general anesthesia gives us new insights into how the brain works in order to develop new sleep aids and new ways for patients to recover from coma."
Brown and colleagues at Weill Cornell Medical College and the University of Michigan, synthesized the most recent studies on anesthesia, coma and sleep to theorize how anesthesia works in the brain.
They hope their research will aid doctors in finding new ways to bring patients out of comas, especially if they can mimic the orderly return to consciousness from the chemically induced coma of anesthesia.
"Consciousness is a very dynamic process," said co-author Dr. Nicholas D. Schiff in a statement. "And now we have a good way of studying it."
The study was supported by National Institutes of Health grants as well as a National Institutes of Health Director's Pioneer Award, and by grants from the James S. McDonnell Foundation.