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Keywords:

  • anesthesia-like state;
  • barbiturate;
  • coma;
  • mesopontine tegmental anesthesia area;
  • mesopontine tegmentum;
  • MPTA

Abstract

Anesthesia, slow-wave sleep, syncope, concussion and reversible coma are behavioral states characterized by loss of consciousness, slow-wave cortical electroencephalogram, and motor and sensory suppression. We identified a focal area in the rat brainstem, the mesopontine tegmental anesthesia area (MPTA), at which microinjection of pentobarbital and other GABAA receptor (GABAA-R) agonists reversibly induced an anesthesia-like state. This effect was attenuated by local pre-treatment with the GABAA-R antagonist bicuculline. Using neuroanatomical tracing we identified four pathways ascending from the MPTA that are positioned to mediate electroencephalographic synchronization and loss of consciousness: (i) projections to the intralaminar thalamic nuclei that, in turn, project to the cortex; (ii) projections to several pontomesencephalic, diencephalic and basal forebrain nuclei that project cortically and are considered parts of an ascending ‘arousal system’; (iii) a projection to other parts of the subcortical forebrain, including the septal area, hypothalamus, zona incerta and striato-pallidal system, that may indirectly affect cortical arousal and hippocampal theta rhythm; and (iv) modest projections directly to the frontal cortex. Several of these areas have prominent reciprocal projections back to the MPTA, notably the zona incerta, lateral hypothalamus and frontal cortex. We hypothesize that barbiturate anesthetics and related agents microinjected into the MPTA enhance the inhibitory response of local GABAA-R-bearing neurons to endogenous GABA released at baseline during wakefulness. This modulates activity in one or more of the identified ascending neural pathways, ultimately leading to loss of consciousness.